The Friedrichshafen Raid - 21 November 1914
The Friedrichshafen Raid – 21 November 1914
When WW1 started in August 1914 the German airship (mainly the Zeppelin) was perceived as being a significant threat. It could fly higher, faster, further, had a greater rate of climb and carry a greater payload than any aircraft of the day. To the Royal Navy, it was potentially more effective than the cruiser for reconnaissance and there were great fears that it would be used for bombing, which in 1914, with no aircraft capable of interception, would be unstoppable, thus giving the Germans command of the air.
If they could not be destroyed in the air then they must be destroyed on the ground. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, drew an analogy of getting rid of hornets by destroying their nest. Therefore the best way to counter the Zeppelin was to destroy its bases, and to this end the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was charged with instigating the world's first strategic bombing campaign.
The RNAS Commander, Captain Murray Sueter, approved the first raids against the Zeppelin bases at Dusseldorf and Cologne, achieving mixed results. The next target selected was the main Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen, on the north east coast of Lake Constance where the borders of Germany, Austria and Switzerland meet.
Why the RNAS?
When the Royal Flying Corps was formed in April 1912 it amalgamated the Army and Naval aviation resources under one umbrella. But from the start it was divided into a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School. The two wings had incompatible needs, and didn’t fully understand the other's roles, even though it was envisaged that they would support each other when need be. The Military Wing needed slow stable aircraft for observation and reconnaissance, while the Naval Wing with their various roles, took a much wider view of aviation in general.
Within a couple of weeks of the RFC being formed, Captain Murray Sueter visited Germany and took a ride in a Zeppelin. He immediately recognised the military threat that it could present to Britain, and in a report which outlined the Zeppelin’s capabilities, concluded with "In any future war with Germany . . . . . . It is difficult to exaggerate the value of this advantage to Germany".
Churchill had become First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1911, and saw the potential of aircraft beyond the limited view of the Military Wing. In October 1913 he wrote a paper describing how Britain needed fighter aircraft for its defence, and bombers to attack the Zeppelins.
The Royal Naval Air Service was formed on 1 July 1914 from the Naval Wing of the RFC, with Murray Sueter as its first Director. It was given as its main role, fleet reconnaissance, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air raids. As the Zeppelin was the only means of performing an air raid, the RNAS was therefore responsible for countering it.
With Austria and Germany being allies, and Switzerland neutral, Friedrichshafen could only be approached from France to the west. The nearest convenient base from which to launch the attack was an airship station at Belfort in eastern France. Belfort is 125 miles from Friedrichshafen, 50 miles west of the German border and 12 miles north of Switzerland. After protracted negotiations, the French eventually agreed to its use for the operation, but insisting the raid be mounted in complete secrecy and within one month.
Belfort, being an airship station, had no runway, so the aircraft would have to be crated and transported by train. This also preserved secrecy, as the arrival of four aircraft loaded with bombs would not have gone unnoticed.
The reconnaissance and planning of the operation was entrusted to an extraordinary character, Noel Pemberton-Billing who had been trying to sell his aircraft to the Naval Wing of the RFC for a long time. Sueter wasn’t interested in his aircraft, but saw something in Pemberton-Billing that he thought made him suitable for the task, and so enrolled him in the RNVR with the rank of Temporary Acting Flight Lieutenant and gave him the job.
Pemberton-Billing left England by car on 21 October 1914 in the company of Lieutenant Frank Arthur Brock, arriving at Belfort three days later where he found the air staff most cooperative. He inspected the two airship sheds and obtained permission to use one of them to house the RNAS aircraft and personnel. He also travelled to Switzerland on a reconnaissance mission from where he could see Friedrichshafen across the lake. Pemberton-Billing returned to England on 28 October. He reported back to Murray Sueter, who briefed Churchill who then gave his approval.
Now they needed aircraft. The Avro 504 biplane seemed to be the most suitable so, on 30 October, the RNAS ordered six from A.V.Roe at Newton Heath, of which the first three were for the raid. The Avro 504 had a top speed of 80mph with a four hour endurance. It was a two seater but, for the operation, the second seat was used for an extra fuel tank. The bombs to be used were four 20 lb Hale bombs per aircraft, each containing 4.5 lbs of explosive, for which new bomb racks had to be designed and made. There were fears that the aircraft would not be ready in time.
Squadron Commander Briggs was given responsibility for modifying, packing and later erecting four of the airframes, for which a party of five riggers were selected to accompany the crated aircraft. The engines to be used were the rotary 80hp Gnome, of which the RNAS had a stock. Flight Commander Babington selected six of these, along with an adequate supply of spares, crated them up and sent them to Southampton. Babington selected a ground crew of five to fit and maintain the engines.
An eleventh man was selected from the staff of A.V.Roe to accompany the aircraft and take responsibility for the newly designed bomb racks. This man was Roy Chadwick, later of Avro Lancaster bomber fame.
Travel and Arrival
In command of the party travelling to Belfort was Squadron Commander Shepherd who, as yet, had received no briefing or orders. They travelled down to Southampton on 10 November to board a steamer whose destination the captain of the vessel refused to disclose until he was at sea.
Just before the ship was due to sail, Pemberton-Billing arrived in a white car, gave Shepherd his sealed orders and a small bag containing £500 in French banknotes and gold sovereigns, and departed just as the vessel was casting off. Meanwhile, the crated airframes, engines and bombs had been loaded on board a different ship, also bound for Le Havre.
When they arrived at Le Havre they found Pemberton-Billing was already supervising the loading of the crates and his car on to the train which was to transport them to Belfort. The train arrived at Belfort after dark on 13 November. The crates were off loaded and moved into one of the airship sheds, and the next day the ground crew started to assemble the aircraft.
To preserve secrecy, no one was allowed to set foot outside the airship shed, which meant that they ate, slept and worked there. Living in the airship shed and sleeping on a bare concrete floor in winter proved to be too much for Shepherd who soon fell ill.
The assembly of the aircraft was completed in two days and the engines were test run inside the shed. Being an airship station, Belfort had no runway, just rough ground, so a runway of sorts was made by clearing stones and removing fences. Shepherd, while conducting taxiing trials in his aircraft, damaged the undercarriage, propeller, tail skid and a wing tip on the rough ground necessitating rapid repairs.
Shepherd’s taxiing accident had put paid to any thought of test flights, as the risk of damage and the limited spares could jeopardise the operation. This meant that the aircraft’s maiden flight was to be the attack itself. To help the pilots in case the aircraft were not rigged correctly, Briggs provided bungee cords to attach to the control columns to hold them in place.
Shepherd’s condition worsened, and so as not to jeopardise the entire operation, in case others also succumbed to illness, Pemberton-Billing took a risk and moved the RNAS personnel to a nearby hotel and obtained a car to transport them daily. Briggs assumed command of the operation and Roland Cannon took Shepherd’s place in his repaired aircraft.
As some of the pilots hadn’t flown a 504 before, there was a great deal of apprehension about flying an unfamiliar and overloaded aircraft, and they must have wondered if they could even take off with a full load of fuel and bombs.
Also, as none of the pilots had ever dropped a bomb before, Chadwick had to instruct them in how to operate the release mechanism. The bombs were held on their racks by split pins and the pilot had to pull four separate wooden toggles, attached by cable to the pins, to release them.
The French produced a last minute surprise by insisting that no maps should be carried that could reveal that they had flown from France, so the first part of the route had to be memorised.
Attachment #1 shows the route to Friedrichshafen
After waiting days for suitable weather, finally on 21 November, the best weather for some days dawned, and the decision to go was made. They would have to go early to ensure the returning aircraft had enough light in which to land. At 09:30 all four aircraft were lined up awaiting last minute checks, then took off at three minute intervals. Because of the shortness of the makeshift runway, each aircraft was restrained by the ground crew until the engine was at full power, then released for a quick getaway.
First away was Briggs in 873, then Babington in 875, followed by Sippe in 874. Last was Cannon in Shepherd’s repaired 179, but he failed to get airborne, tried again, but damaged the aircraft on the rough ground and had to abort. Now there were only three.
The flight plan was to fly 10 degrees north of east for 85 miles at 4,000ft to clear the Black Forest Mountains, then eight degrees south of east for the next 40 miles to the target.
The rotary engines of the 504s only had two speeds, stop and full speed, the speed could not be adjusted. Consequently, flying in formation for a coordinated attack was impossible. Instead it was very much three individual attacks.
Although no one knew exactly what the target looked like, they were confident that large sheds beside a large lake shouldn’t be that hard to find. In the event, the weather was clear and sunny, and they all found the target.
Avro 504s at Belfort.jpg Avro 504 Babington.jpg
Attachment #2 shows the 504s lined up at Belfort, just before take off.
Attachment #3 shows Babintong's plane being restrained.
It is seen from these that they were helped by the French station staff.
Briggs was the first to arrive at Friedrichshafen at about 11.50, and dropped his bombs, but his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft in its fuel system and the engine lost power. Wounded in the head Briggs had no option but to land in front of the sheds he had just tried to bomb. Many accounts erroneously state that he was beaten up by civilians. He was arrested and taken to hospital and then on to captivity, later escaping.
Sippe reached the western end of Lake Constance at 11.30 and descended to within ten feet of the surface of the water in the hope that he could approach Friedrichshafen undetected. Following the north shore of the lake until he was about five miles from the target, he then started to climb to around 1,200 feet. When half a mile from the target, he dived to 700 feet flying into anti-aircraft fire, dropped his first bomb in the hope of putting the gunners off their aim. His second and third bombs were released as he passed over the Friedrichshafen sheds and works. The fourth bomb failed to release and as he headed north out of the range of the anti-aircraft fire he decided to make another run at the floating seaplane shed nearby. Again the bomb failed to release and he was forced down to ground level to avoid anti-aircraft machine gun fire as he headed out over Lake Constance and home. He reached Belfort at 13.50.
Babington was the last to arrive at Friedrichshafen, having had trouble with his aircraft which was nose heavy, and with his engine not producing full power, limiting his ceiling to 4,000ft. On arrival, he overflew the target, turned and lined up for his bombing run with the sun behind him. He believed that the Zeppelin shed was hit and Zeppelin inside damaged. He didn’t make it back to Belfort, because he was not allowed to carry maps. Carefully flying a reciprocal course he became disorientated as he flew over unfamiliar countryside, and running short of fuel, he decided to land to get directions. Fortunately he had landed in France, 30 miles SW of Belfort, and a local farmer took him to a telephone, where he contacted Belfort and arranged to be picked up.
The RNAS party left for England the next day. They arrived back in England to great acclaim, with awards to the pilots of both the Distinguished Service Order and the French Legion d’honneur.
Briggs 504 at Friedrichshafen.jpg
Attachment#4 shows Briggs's 504 in front of the Zeppelin sheds after being shot down.
Accounts of the time differ as to the extent of the actual damage caused by the raid. The British naturally emphasised the effectiveness of the raid for propaganda reasons, but actually, only one bomb hit a workshop causing minor damage, and no airships were damaged because the nearest bomb had exploded between two buildings 60 feet away, breaking a window.
Admiralty, 1st January 1915
The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Distinguished Service Order in respect of the undermentioned Officers:-
To be Companions of the Distinguished Service Order.
Squadron Commander Edward Featherstone Briggs, Royal Naval Air Service.
Flight Commander John Tremayne Babington, Royal Naval Air Service.
Flight Lieutenant Sidney Vincent Sippe, Royal Naval Air Service.
Whitehall, May 18 1916
The KING has been pleased to give and grant unto the undermentioned Officers His Majesty's Royal licence and authority to wear Decorations (as stated against their respective names), which have been conferred upon them by the President of the French Republic in recognition of valuable services rendered by them:-
Insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
Engineer Lieutenant-Commander Edward Featherstone Briggs, D.S.O., R.N. (Squadron Commander, R.N.A.S.).
Lieutenant John Tremayne Babington, D.S.O., R.N. (Squadron Commander, R.N.A.S.).
Flight Commander Sidney Vincent Sippe, D.S.O., R.N.A.S.
Air Ministry, 16th December 1919
His Majesty the KING has been pleased to approve of recognition being accorded, as indicated below, to Officers and other ranks of the Royal Air Force, for gallantry whilst Prisoners of War in escaping, or attempting to escape, from captivity, or for valuable services rendered in the Prison Camps of the Enemy:-
Awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order.
Wing Commander Edward Featherstone Briggs, D.S.O., O.B.E.
After the raid, the Germans increased both security and anti-aircraft defences at Friedrichshafen. They were also concerned about the vulnerability of their airship production facilities, so built a second Zeppelin factory at Potsdam which was beyond the range of any enemy aircraft.
Looking at the raid with modern eyes, it seems a very amateurish affair, but with the RNAS formed only five months, and WW1 only three months old, everyone was still finding their way, learning as they went along. It epitomises the enterprise and pioneering spirit of the RNAS in those days and the character and calibre of the officers who manned it.
In summary, the attack was launched from an airport with no runway, by aircraft which hadn’t flown before, piloted by some who had not flown this type before, navigating solo across unfamiliar country without maps, to drop bombs from untested bomb racks on a vaguely defined target by those who had never before dropped a bomb.
In spite of these daunting difficulties, it didn’t stop them, and they succeeded!
"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" - Cicero.
Re: The Friedrichshafen Raid - 21 November 1914
Fine work, Bill. Thank You for the effort.
The Royal Naval Air Service was indeed a pioneering service. During the time frame that the Fredrichshafen Raid was planned and carried out the same set of operational commanders created the first naval vessels designed to operate aircraft, the Monitor designs of d'Eyncourt and Charles Lillicrap. The ability of the aircraft, Sopwith 807, Short 166 and Sopwith Schneider, extended the visual range of naval gunnery to something in keeping with the 26,000 yard range of the guns.
Such secrecy was imparted to the inclusion of aircraft in the planning of the Monitors that the planes were referred to as 'Boxes' on drawings and in memorandum. Regards
Re: The Friedrichshafen Raid - 21 November 1914
Exelent post Bill, reads like a story from 'Boy's Own'. I knew the gist of the raid, but it was grand to see some flesh on the bones so to speak.
This country seems to be good at struggling along with string and sticky tape type operations, eg taking boats into the middle of Africa to attack the Germans, and,I suppose to a certain extent the Falklands War, hastily organised and against all the odds.
"No one is perfect, however being Scottish is near enough"!
Re: The Friedrichshafen Raid - 21 November 1914
Great story! It shows what can be done with ingenuity and determination!
Flight Lieutenant R L G Marix by Ivan Berryman.
On 8th October 1914, war in the air changed forever with what would become the first successful strategic bombing raid on Germany. As bad weather threatened to frustrate their mission, two little Sopwith Tabloids took off in search of the giant Zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Dusseldorf, one piloted by Squadron Commander D A Spenser Grey and the other by Flight Lieutenant Reggie Marix. Grey was beaten by poor visibility and instead chose to bomb the railway station at Cologne whilst Marix located the primary target and bombed it at once from a height of just 600ft. Almost immediately, the mighty LZ.25 that was housed inside began to burn and then blew up spectacularly, the fireball threatening to engulf Marixs Tabloid. Both Marix and Grey were awarded the Distinguished Service Order for their efforts. The age of aerial bombing had arrived.
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