WWI: The First Modern War – Massive Air Attacks

WWI: The First Modern War – Massive Air Attacks

100th Anniversary of the Independent Air Force WWI – 06/06/1918


Birth of Air Bombing

The start of the First World War in 1914 saw the beginnings of mass slaughter on a scale never seen before as modern weapons such as heavy artillery and machine guns reaped a terrible toll on the battlefield. Although the early 20th century weaponry had progressed enormously in just over a decade, military tactics had not and the sickening spectacle of infantry scrambling across barbed wire entanglements into the teeth of devastating machine gun fire became the hallmark of the era.

Military strategists desperately tried to find ways of overcoming the deadlock of trench warfare, and aircraft were seen as a real possibility. The British concentrated on developing their early aeroplanes and great strides forward were made in a short time period.


The Zeppelin

The Germans decided to travel a different road by developing the Zeppelin – a large hydrogen filled rigid airship that was powered by several engines – from 2 to 6 depending on the model. The Zeppelin could travel long distances, and were certainly capable of flying across the English Channel – a fact that was noted with great interest by German military strategists.

The idea of aerial bombing gradually took root, and it was soon realised that raids across the channel, using Zeppelins to carry bombs, could be a very useful way of attacking military installations, and also demoralising the general public.

However the Zeppelins had weaknesses as well as strengths. They could travel long distances at high altitude and also carry a large bomb payload. But they were slow and also inflated with hydrogen – a highly flammable gas that was easily ignited.


The Raids Begin

Bombing raids were launched against England on 19 January 1915, under explicit orders from the Kaiser that only military targets could be attacked, and these restrictions continued for at least the first half of 1915. However, because the raids were done at night bombing accuracy was impossible and inevitably civilian areas were hit. This triggered a slow drift towards “unrestricted bombing” that was designed to crush the morale of the British people.

The British responded by appointing Admiral Percy Scott to organise defences against the Zeppelins and these included anti-aircraft guns, night fighters and searchlights,

but initially these had little effect.

On October 13 1915 the Germans launched their largest night raid of the War,

– consisting of 5 Zeppelins carrying some two tonnes of bombs each. These were launched against London, where they inflicted massive damage. 71 civilians were killed and 128 injured.


The British Fight Back

The British gained the upper hand in the air war during 1916 when Lewis machine guns armed with incendiary ammunition designed to set fire to the Zeppelins were mounted on their night fighters. From September to December 1916 six Zeppelins were shot down in flames and the Germans were forced to suspend their operations.


The Giant Gotha

However they responded with daylight raids over England using giant Gotha Bombers – conventional but very large aircraft that could fly much faster than the Zeppelins and carry a devastating bomb load. On 13 June 1917 a flight of 14 Gothas bombed London, inflicting 162 deaths and 432 injuries – the deadliest air raid of the war.

However a little more than 6 months later Germany surrendered, before the Gothas could reach their full lethal potential.

The German air raids of the First World War had a tremendous impact on military thinking, and during the Second World War, the unrestricted bombing of civilians was practiced from the very beginning, destroying entire cities and reaping a dreadful harvest in human lives.


By: R. Whitaker

Image: German Dirigible Flying Over the British Fleet, c 1914, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.