The Genesis of City Bombing in World War One

A major raison d’être for the formation of the RAF in April 1918 – and establishing it as independent part of Britain’s armed forces alongside the Army and Navy – was to produce a strategic bombing force for the sole purpose of attacking built up areas deep inside western Germany. By June 1918 London’s chief purpose for bomber missions was to weaken the Germans will to resist and Hugh Montague Trenchard was appointed the commander of this ‘Independent Bombing or Air Force’ (IAF), which operated from bases near to Nancy in the French sector and well to the south of the British front lines (see map).

Front lines in 1918: Spring to 11th November

In Britain, much is well known and written about the German Zeppelin airship attacks of 1915/16 – and the following Gotha bomber attacks on London during the summer of 1917. In contrast, far less is widely known about Britain’s own long-range bombing attacks on German cities in all four years of the war. Beginning as early as autumn 1914 with Cologne and Düsseldorf, these increased in complexity long before the amalgamation of the army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS).

Within months of the outbreak of WW1 the new RNAS was in action and was the first to carry out bombings against German Zeppelin and later U-Boat component factories. It was the Admiralty that drove the initial strategy to bomb Imperial Germany direct and in December 1914 Commodore Murray Sueter, of the British Admiralty’s Air Department, ordered the development of a “bloody paralyser of an aeroplane” to bomb Germany.

Handley Page 0/400 IAF bombers at their French sector base

During the last five months of WW1, aircraft of Britain’s new IAF dropped 560 tons of bombs, including 400 tons dropped by night. Western Germany saw the brunt of these attacks all along its western border towns on the Rhineland – from the Ruhr to Baden.

These issues are still relevant today, because, excluding the still limited examples of the use of surface-to-surface tactical missile on urban areas, aerial attacks by manned bombers have shown a steady continuity of use from WW1 to now. In our recent past, bombing was continued most notably by NATO, with the RAF and USAF the leading players: examples include Belgrade, Novi Sad in 1999; most of urban Iraq in 2003 – including Baghdad, Basra, Fallujah and so on; and on Libya’s coastal towns during 2011.

Civilian ‘Morale’ as a Primary Target

HG Wells, in the ‘The War in the Air’, had eerily foreshadowed all of this in his 1908 book. In Britain, fear of the Zeppelin as a weapon of war preceded its actual use: even before the war the British public was gripped by “zeppelinitis”. The size and (then) apparent invulnerability of the airships to attack triggered great concern and caused no less an authority than Trenchard himself to proclaim that: ‘The moral effect of bombing stands to the material in a proportion of 20 to 1’.

The army of the western front had dug in and could make little movement, making the slaughter at the front seem meaningless. So the military high command looked desperately for a new more mobile way to progress the war. Aircraft seemed to offer the most obvious solution and it was believed in London that air attacks against the civilian population might force rapid results.

Trenchard realised that from 1916/17 in England the effect on morale had been out of all proportion to the size of the German bomber force – or the material damage caused. Extrapolating this experience in England to Germany, Trenchard stated that: ‘The anxiety as to whether an attack is likely to take place is probably just as demoralising to the industrial population as the actual attack itself’.

It was very difficult for the Admiralty to provide evidence of the material damage caused by its raids. Alluding to the “moral effect” of the raids, however, added weight to the Admiralty’s arguments, and was difficult to refute. This alone had a profound effect on the thinking of military planners and politicians for many years to come. Should the Independent Force aim primarily to cause material destruction, or else what were known at the time as “moral” effects – essentially psychological strain and war-weariness among the German people? These two kinds of objectives, physical (or denial) and psychological (or coercive), have been characteristics of strategic bombing campaigns throughout the Twentieth Century.

Officers of No. 207 Squadron RAF, at Ligescourt, 29 August 1918 & Handley Page bomber (photo source IWM)

Driving Personalities

In August 1917 Lieutenant-General Jan Christian Smuts, a member of the British War Cabinet, prepared a report, which advocated that a separate Air Ministry and Air Force should be set up, independent of the Army and Navy. He also recommended that a strategic bomber force should be formed whose sole purpose was to attack Germany.

Smuts stated: ‘… The day may not be far off when aerial operation with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industries and populous centres on a vast scale may become one of the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subservient’.

One of the key figures responsible for the detailed planning of British strategic bombing was Major Lord Tiverton, later 2nd Earl of Halsbury. On 3rd September 1917 his report included: These raids would have psychological effects on German populace (spreading fear of attack to other cities, and leading to pressure on the German government from its civilians to end the war). Although Tiverton’s September 1917 paper did suggest that bombing raids could have an important “moral” or psychological effect on German workers, this mention of the psychological impact of bombing reflected Admiralty policy.

In December 1917 Lord Rothermere, head of the new Air Board, publicly announced that: ‘At the Air Board we are wholeheartedly in favour of air reprisals! It is our duty to avenge the murder of innocent women and children. As the enemy elects, so it will be the case of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”…’ Such announcements may have been purely for public consumption, yet they demonstrated the extent to which strategic bombing was becoming a political as well as a military matter.

Rothermere resigned shortly after April 1918 and his successor Sir William Weir offered Trenchard the command of the IAF near Nancy, and Weir told Trenchard that it was not necessary to worry about accuracy during bombing raids.

After the formation of the RAF in April 1918, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to repay Germany for its air raids “with compound interest”.

Major General Sir Frederick Sykes, Chief of the Air Staff, chaired the Air Strategy meeting on 28th June 1918 at the 22nd sitting of the Imperial War Cabinet. Weir and Sykes then elaborated their strategic plan to the PM and assembled Ministers. Main targets for attack are: A: Rhein-Ruhr area, B: Rhein-Main area, C: Saarland-Lothringen. In his Attack-Concept Sykes also saw civilians as ‘political targets’ in that bombing attacks should cause such civil unrest amongst workers in the industrial cities that they could lead to street protests and strident demands on Berlin for peace talks.

Theatre of Operations: British bomber bases and main target areas

As IAF commander, Trenchard reported directly to Sir William Weir the Air Minister, bypassing the Chief of the Air Staff, Frederick Sykes. So, in 1918, in just five months to the war’s ending, Trenchard and the IAF high command in London showed that city bombing could one day prove to be a weapon of incalculable importance and might become a principal way to wage war.

An insight into the character of the “father” of both the RAF & IAF occurred after the end of WW1, when most members of Britain’s armed forces just wanted to be demobbed as quickly as possible and go home.

In January 1919 around 5,000 soldiers based in Southampton mutinied after being told they were required for further duties, rather than going home as they’d been promised. The Establishment, however, required troops to consolidate gains in land and resources – and police the Empire and a certain General Hugh Trenchard (later Viscount) was dispatched to Southampton to sort the mutineers out. He surrounded them with armed soldiers from other units and threatened them with lethal force till they surrendered and agreed to obey orders.

During WW1 this ruthless psychology filtered down to the IAF aircrew and, whatever they had been ordered to hit, some pilots selected their own targets within the towns chosen. A post-war RAF assessment of the Independent Force’s bombing observed that: ‘In the case of night pilots it would appear, judging by results, that there was a tendency at times to drop an odd bomb or two on objectives of their own choosing’. Some aircrew took the attitude that the Germans had begun the use of bombing against cities, and therefore deserved to experience such “frightfulness” themselves.

For example: Major W. Read, the commander of No. 216 Squadron, described one night-time raid in his diary: ‘As soon as Sgt Keen dropped the bombs I looked over the side for the effect. It looked terrible. I had told Sgt Keen to aim for the middle of the town. Personally when I go to a German town I am all out to bomb the town and, although it sounds awful to say so, to kill and cause as much destruction as possible in preference to bombing railway junctions or docks. When one thinks of all the atrocities the Huns have committed in this war one learns to hate them and wants to kill them’.

Timeline of notable Operations

The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) undertook the first Entente strategic bombing missions from Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey on 22 September and 8 October 1914, when it bombed the Zeppelin bases in Cologne and Düsseldorf. The airplanes carried just twenty-pound bombs. On 21 November the RNAS flew across Lake Constance to bomb the Zeppelin factories in Friedrichshafen. On Christmas day 1914, Cuxhaven was similarly bombed. Ludwigshafen however had the dubious honour on 27th May 1915, of being the target of the world’s first concerted strategic aerial bombardment. French aircraft attacked the BASF plants, killing twelve people and setting the precedent for the age to come.

The worst German loss of life took place also by the French Air Corps on 22nd June 1916 in Karslruhe at just after 3pm. The French had old maps, possibly aiming for the main railway station the 40 bombs fell on housing areas in which 120 people were killed outright, including 71 children visiting Circus Hagenbeck (on Ettlinger-Tor-Platz) whose tent was next to the train station. A further 169 were wounded. In the whole German Reich this attack was a main theme in the press and in propaganda: “Der Kindermord von Karlsruhe”. 

(From a German viewpoint it made no difference if they were French or British bombs and reprisal attacks were planned accordingly)

Whilst German air attacks on England in 1915-17 were largely ineffective in terms of actual damage done, their political and psychological effects were enormous (witness recent times with respect to “Jihadist terrorist” attacks in Britain). Zeppelin airships made about 50 raids and more than 5,000 bombs were dropped on towns across England.

At noon on 13th June 1917, a new threat arrived, when eighteen Gotha bombers, despite being attacked in broad daylight by over 90 RFC fighters on their inward and outward flights, bombed the East End of London and the City without loss, causing 162 deaths and injuring over 400. For the next month, the daily raids on the capital city met with little opposition from British aircraft, angering the population of London. Production levels within the city dropped, while the public demanded that the military should stop the bombings.

Simple Physics and Geography dictated that London and the East Coast were principal targets for German aircraft based in occupied Belgium and NW Germany

Although Britain dropped 660 tons of bombs on Germany, more than twice what Germany had managed to drop on England, the IAF was seen to be striking back against the nation that had bombed home territory. And the British newspapers were full of reports on revenge bombing raids; from the point of view of some British politicians, this alone represented effectiveness.

Called either the Independent Air, or Bombing Force, the IAF – as a new branch of the RAF – was based at airfields near Ochey, Nancy courtesy of the French high command. The improved Handley Page O/400 (photo) had started to enter service in April 1918, gradually allowing the re-equipment of more IAF squadrons, particularly those trained for night ops.

Independent Force (RAF) operations, mostly with the HP 0/400, commenced in early June 1918, with a Squadron despatched to bomb a number of targets in and around Koblenz. Cologne railway station was bombed 21/22 August; with a raid on 25th August on the works at Mannheim being particularly accurate. Five aircraft attacked Saarbrucken on 2/3 September. On the night of 21/22 October, four Handley Pages attacked Kaiserslautern with heavy bombs and incendiaries; and Kaiserslautern was bombed again on 23/24 October, along with Koblenz, Mannheim and Wiesbaden.

Original map showing cities within bomber range. Red stars indicate cities bombed by the Entente prior to the Gotha raids on London. (Mannheim includes Ludwigshafen) 

The Balance

Had the Great War continued, even larger aircraft would have carried the war to the German population, especially Berlin. This ambition was the driving force to develop and get into service the long range Handly Page V/1500 or ‘Super Handley’ and the Vickers Vimy. A number of these new types, which were capable of reaching Berlin from their base in Norfolk, were armed and ready to depart on their first mission on 11th November 1918, but the signing of the Armistice on this day put an end to this.

Nevertheless the aircraft remained ready in case the Germans reneged on the Armistice. The minutes of the Air Council for 29th November 1918 ominously state that two V/1500s “must remain available fully equipped for carrying out special demonstrations over Berlin if needed”.

“The reminders to turn back remain unheard”

In 100 years we have gone from those crude early bombing raids of WW1 to the exponentially more sophisticated bombing, missile and drone strikes of the 21st century. Regardless of all this high tech digitally controlled technology, however, non-combatant civilians, including schools, hospitals – or busloads of children – are still being counted among the fatal casualties. It is long past the time to say NEVER AGAIN to this carnage being inflicted by munitions and equipment produced in our country, or by actions carried out in our name.

Mass grave memorial to 120 Karlsruhe victims of 22nd June 1916 air attacks and earlier (translation) “The reminders to turn back remain unheard”

Compiled by VFP members Ged Murphy & Aly Renwick, whom both served in the British Army.

Sources inc:

-British strategic bombing, 1917-1918: The Independent Force and its predecessors, Andrew Whitmarsh.

-Strategischer Luftkrieg gegen Deutschland 1914-1918, Ralf Blank.

-Western Front bombing database, Suddaby.

-Hugh Trenchard; and the Southampton mutiny, Wikipedia.

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