Swingate is a large stretch of downland on the east side of Dover Castle. It is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the history of the site is internationally unique, particularly in relation to communication. This essay is the second in a series of four stories, told in chronological order, which gives a glimpse into this fascinating history.
This Section of the story of Swingate centres on the site’s role during in World War One (1914-1918) and covers:
1. Pre-World War I – Swingate and Aviation
2. 1914 – The War will be over by Christmas
3. 1915 – Inventions, Innovations and Developments
4. 1916 – Cannon Fodder, Quagmires and an Offer of Peace
5. 1917 – On the Offensive & Americans come to Swingate
6. 1918 – To be uploaded
1. Pre-World War I – Swingate and Aviation
As described in Swingate Part 1 – Marconi, South Foreland and Wireless, Swingate was commandeered by the military in the 1850s and many of Guglielmo Marconi’s (1874-1939) early experiments in wireless communication took place on the site and/or the nearby South Foreland. Historically, it is also significant for on the nearby Northfall Meadow, between Swingate and the Castle on the morning of Sunday 25 July 1909, Louis Blériot (1872-1936) had landed. He had crossed from Sangatte, France to England in his Blériot No XI 25-horsepower monoplane and it was the first heavier than air flight to make the Channel crossing. When he landed, 36minutes 30 seconds after take off, besides making history, he instigated the meteoric rise of interest in aviation in which Swingate played a significant role.
The first aerial crossing of the English Channel had taken place on 7 January 1785 by Dr John Jeffries (1744-1819) and Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809). In a lighter than air balloon they had made the crossing from Dover. Although not at Dover, in 1804 British amateur engineer, Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) flew a model glider, the world’s earliest known successful heavier-than-air craft. In his paper of 1799, Cayley particularly recognised that the basic principle of heavier-than-air flight is that lift is provided by horizontal surfaces. He went on to say that the other two principles of flight are drag and thrust. Drag is the resistance of the air to a moving body and thrust is the driving force that overcomes drag.
It was in 1853 that Cayley had made his historic adult piloted glider flight and about the same time French engineer, Henri Giffard (1825-1882) was working on the manoeuvrability of airships. In 1852 he flew 27kilometres from Paris to Trappes – north-central France. His machine was a steam engine airship that was more oval in shape than its predecessors – the design made it easier to drive through air. The first fully controlled airship, La France, was powered by electricity and flew in 1884 but it was the invention of the petrol engine that led to more practical airships.
German bookseller Friedrich Hermann Wölfert (1850- June 1897) produced a successful airship using a Daimler petrol engine in 1888 and in the following decade, Croatian-Hungarian Dr David Schwarz (1850- January 1897) built the first rigid airship. It was filled with gas contained within a rigid aluminium envelope that was riveted on to a metal framework. The airship, based on this design, was then successfully developed and commercialised by German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917).
During the 19th century the British Army used balloons and later airships in the First Boer War (1880-1881). Developed by, amongst others, the Royal Engineers, in 1890 they were granted a full Balloon Section with its own Balloon Factory on Farnborough Common, Hampshire. Aviators such as Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe (1877-1958), who later in 1910 founded the Avro Company in Manchester, undertook experiments with the airships there. Also, aviators Samuel Franklin Cody (1867-1913) and John William Dunne (1875-1949) made significant contributions, particularly in engine design. However, the War Office only saw the potential of air flight in reconnaissance and was horrified when, in 1909, Dunne reported that an airship could travel at 40miles an hour! The War Office, having spent £2,500 on the research, immediately cancelled the funding. Of note, by this time Germany had spent £400,000 on aeronautical research!
On 17 December 1903 near Kitty Hawk, South Carolina in the US, bicycle manufacturers Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright, had made the first controlled and sustained powered flights, landing on ground at the same level as the take-off point. By 1905 they had built a flying machine with controls that made it completely manoeuvrable. The US Army showed no interest in the achievement so in 1906, when an American patent was granted to the Wright brothers, they entered agreements with firms in Britain, Germany and France. The first British aeroplane manufacturing company to gain the right to build their aeroplanes was the Short Brothers at Mussell (Muswell) Manor, at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, north Kent. This was owned and run by Horace Short (1872-1917) and his brother Oswald (1883-1969) and opened in February 1909.
The German government continued to recognise the possibilities of aeronautics and saw the future potential of airships. The British government’s view, on the other hand, can be best stated by Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), the Secretary of State for War (1905-1912). In a letter dated 4 March 1907 he wrote, ‘the War Office has not the least intention of entering any agreement as to flying machines with anyone, or giving the slightest guarantee.’ The French government, however, did see the feasibilities particularly in aeroplanes and encouraged private funding. For instance both Blériot and Anglo-French aviator, Henri Farman (1874-1958) who built a biplane more stable than the Wright aeroplane, were actively encouraged by the French government.
In the spring of 1910, wealthy Charles Rolls (1877-1910) saw Swingate Down plateau as having potential for an airfield and persuaded the War Office to rent him the site when it was not required for military purposes. On acquiring the Swingate Aerodrome, as he renamed the area, Rolls had an ‘aeroplane garage’, or hangar as they are now called, erected. On 20 May 1910 a Wright Flyer machine, belonging to Rolls, arrived at Dover and at 18.30hrs on Thursday 2 June he took off from Swingate Aerodrome. Rolls passed over Sangatte, France, at 19.15hrs and after re-crossing the Chanel he circled around the Castle in triumph. Rolls landed at Swingate aerodrome at 20.00hrs having made the first two way Channel crossing in an aeroplane. Over 3,000 people witnessed the event, after which Rolls was carried through the town shoulder high. A month later, on 12 July 1910, Charles Rolls lost his life due to a controlling wire breaking that had been added to his Wright Flyer.
The main military purpose of Swingate Downs was for training the volunteers that made up the different brigades of the Territorial Army (TAs). The Royal Engineers, based at the Castle, also used the site to try out equipment, one of which was being overseen by Major John Nassau Chambers Kennedy (1865-1915). This equipment was associated with a wireless station he had set up for military use and was housed in a decommissioned battery in the Castle grounds. As a young Captain, Kennedy had witnessed Marconi’s experiments in wireless communication on Salisbury Plain. He saw the potential of wireless communication for the armed services and subsequently assisted Marconi with many experiments and demonstrations in that sphere (see Swingate Part 1).
In the armed services, flights such as that undertaken by Rolls inspired a number of officers to learn to fly and concurrently, private aircraft producing factories were opening. One such factory was the Bristol Tramways Company owned by George White (1854-1916) – later knighted – together with his brother Samuel (c1862-1928). As a subsidiary, they founded the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company at Filton in Bristol in 1910 to build aircraft using improved existing aeroplane designs. They quickly gained the reputation of being the largest aeroplane manufacturer in Europe! As successful businessmen they also saw the need for flying schools with their own airfields, and opened their first at Brooklands near Weybridge in Surrey followed by a second one at Larkhill, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire in July 1910.
On 31 September, two months after the Larkhill airfield opened, aviator and West End actor Robert Loraine (1876-1935) – who first named the aircraft control stick a ‘joystick‘ – was asked to test an upgraded Farman biplane with a special adaptation. The adaptation was a basic Marconi wireless transmitter weighing a mere (for those days) 14lbs. The machine was attached to the passenger seat with monopole antenna wires stretched along the breadth and length of the biplane. The Morse key for tapping out messages was fixed next to the pilot’s left hand and Loraine, who had used terrestrial Marconi transmitters, was asked to send a pre-determined message while flying over Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, approximately 2 miles away. This he did with his left hand while controlling the aeroplane with his right.
In a hangar at Larkhill surrounding the Marconi receiver was Captain Kennedy and Marconi engineers Harry Melville Dowsett (1879- January 1964), Charles Samuel Franklin (1879- December 1964) and a number of dignitaries. These were headed by the Home Secretary (1910-1911), Winston Churchill (1874-1965); Field Marshal William Gustavus Nicholson, 1st Baron Nicholson, (1845-1918) the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (1908-1912); Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1832-1914) and former Commander in Chief (1901-1904); along with Sir John French (1852-1925) later the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (1912-1914) and then Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (1914-1915). Also in the hangar were army and navy officers and one of the army officers was a Major Herbert Musgrave (1876-1918). Loraine did as he was bid and the dignitaries were delighted when the message ‘enemy in sight‘ was received on the apparatus in the hangar. However, the dignitaries generally expressed reservations about the use of aeroplanes for defence purposes.
At the time the Army’s Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers had a couple of airships, five officers who could fly aeroplanes – one of which was Musgrave – and 40 men. Germany had six airships, twenty officers and 465 men. The US government had one airship, one aeroplane, three officers and 10 men but within a year the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps had been set up and the 1st Aero Squadron had 29 factory-built aircraft. While France had 8 airships, 10 aeroplanes, 24 officers and 432 men. Albeit, within the British armed services a number of officers had taken private flying lessons and Musgrave proposed the formation of an aviation division. This was initially rejected so above the airfield adjacent to the Balloon Factory, they practised manoeuvres using private aircraft. Then on 12 May 1911, at Hendon aerodrome (1908-1968) at Colindale, seven miles north west of Charing Cross, London. Musgrave and his colleagues put on an impressive display. In 1912 the Army Balloon Factory on Farnborough Common was renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory (later renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment) and employed it’s first aeroplane designer, Geoffrey de Havilland (1882-1965). Musgrave became one of the test pilots.
With the prospect of a possible War against Germany, in November 1911, the Committee of Imperial Defence set up a sub-committee to examine the question of military aviation. They reported on 28 February 1912 and recommended the establishment of a flying corps made up of a military and naval wing with a central flying school and an aircraft factory. The recommendations were accepted and on 26 March 1912 George V (1910-1936) gave his approval to the title ‘Royal Flying Corps’ that received Royal Assent on 13 April. The year before, in 1911, the Army’s Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers had been increased to two companies. Number 1 Balloon Section for balloons and airships and Number 2 for aeroplanes and together they formed the basis of the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps founded on 13 May 1912.
From the outset the Military Wing consisted of three squadrons each commanded by a major but it was not until 1914 the Naval Wing organised itself into squadrons. Nonetheless, the Central Flying School was established at Upavon, Wiltshire and at the time a Major Hugh R Trenchard (1873-1956), was keen to be involved. To do so, he was required to learn to fly but due to his age, Trenchard only had ten days in which to gain his aviator’s licence before he would be 40years of age and too old! Trenchard signed in at Thomas (Tommy) Octave Murdoch Sopwith’s (1888-1989) flying school at Brooklands and successfully gained his wings in time! Trenchard, however, was not a particularly good pilot but his main ability was as an organiser and when he applied that was the skill he hoped to put to good use. He was employed at the Central Flying School but the first Commandant, Sir Godfrey Marshall Paine, (1871-1932) appointed him as an instructor! Luckily for the RFC, Trenchard was shortly after promoted to Assistant Commandant and he ensured that the trainee pilots were well-versed in map reading, signalling and engine mechanics. In December 1912, 32 officers graduated and by that time the Royal Flying Corps had 12 manned balloons and 36 aeroplanes. Their motto, devised by Lieutenant J.S Yule was Per ardua ad astra -Through adversity to the stars.
The establishment of the new Royal Flying Corps (RFC) came in for criticism as flying was seen as a dangerous pastime for rich gentlemen and therefore a waste of public money. This accounted for the reluctance to provide any funding and the disapproval was levelled at Colonel John Edward Bernard Seely, 1st Baron Mottistone (1868-1947) Secretary of State for War (1912-1914). In the House of Commons in May 1912, Seely responded by telling members that the RFC had five aeroplanes that could fly 70 miles per hour and that there were 15 more on order. ‘The Corps also had 26 trained military pilots,’ he added, ‘with another 36 expected to graduate in December by which time the number of aeroplanes would have increased significantly.’ Winston Churchill, at that time was the First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-1915), and expressed his concern about Germany building up her military strength. He went on to say that Germany had five rigid airships, one military, one naval, two civilian and one experimental. He went on to say that opinions differed as which were better, airships or aeroplanes and the subject was still receiving the attention of the Admiralty. Nonetheless, ‘the Navy would continue to endorse the growth of aeronautics as part of the country’s defence.‘ Although Dover’s Member of Parliament, George Wyndham, (1863-1913) agreed with the two Ministers, he made it clear that in his opinion, more money should be spent on increasing the number of aircraft and pilots.
At Larkhill in August 1912, before a military team headed by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson (1862-1921), a trial of different aircraft took place for the RFC. A total of 30 machines, based on eight different designs, were assessed and each plane had an RFC’s trained military pilot on board. Two of the biplanes were based on the Blériot Experimental or BE series of monoplanes built by the Royal Aircraft Factory – the forerunner of which was the Blériot No XI that Blériot had used to make his historic flight. At the trial, these were flown by Edmond Perreyon (c1882-1913). There were two built by René Hanriot (1867-1925) one of which was flown by Major Sydney Vincent Sippe (1889-1968) and the other by Juan Bielovucic (1889-1949). There was also a Maurice Farman biplane flown by Pierre Verrier and a French Deperdussin Monocoque flown by Maurice Prévost, (1887-1952), a Cody Riplane flown by Sam Cody and finally a Coventry Ordnance aeroplane flown by Tommy Sopwith. The challenge was to assemble the planes and then to carry a load ( a passenger) of 350lb for 3hours, and fuel and oil to last 4hours 30minutes, maintaining an altitude of 4,500feet for one hour the first 1,500feet obtained at 200feet a minute although 300feet a minute was desirable.
The weather was stormy on the day of the test, and the first part – preparation of the aeroplane, showed a huge variation in the length of time taken, from 14minutes 30seconds to 116minutes 55 seconds! Except for the Coventry Ordnance and one of Hanriot’s aeroplanes, the other aeroplanes completed the test successfully. The Hanriot’s number 1 flown by Bielouvucic retired, while the Coventry Ordnance was forced to land after 25minutes. The passenger in the latter was Major Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham (1878-1953) – later knighted and the Air Chief Marshall of the Royal Air Force – who reported that a valve spring regulating the petrol supply had broken. Sopwith repaired the faulty valve spring and again set off, managing to fly the furthest distance. Not only were the military and parliament interested in the outcome of the trials but also Prince Edward (1894-1972), the Prince of Wales and the future Edward VIII (1936), who was to actively support the RFC. That year, the estimate for government spending on air defence was £85,000.
The RFC had their first air accident on 5 July 1912 near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Captain Eustace Broke Loraine (1879-1912) and his observer, Staff Sergeant Richard Hubert Victor Wilson (1883-1912) were flying from Larkhill. Both were killed and this had a negative effect on the moral of the other aviators. Later that day an order was issued stating that ‘Flying will continue this evening as usual’, setting a tradition that still holds today. A month later Lieutenant Wilfrid Parke (1889-1912), who had just broken a world endurance record in an Avro G cabin biplane was flying the same plane when he was observed to recover from an accidental spin some 700 feet above ground level at Larkhill. Sadly, on 11 December 1912 Parke was killed when his Handley Page monoplane, in which he was flying from Hendon to Oxford crashed.
In September 1912, two experienced aviators, Captain Patrick Hamilton (1882-1912) and Athole Wyness-Stuart (1882-1912), who were undertaking the Central Flying School course and flying a Duperdussin, were killed at Graveley near Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The main witness, Walter Charles Brett (1865-1942) of the George and Dragon public house, Graveley, said that the aeroplane was high up but wobbling about then it appeared to dip down, which was followed by a loud retort, as from a gun, and the aeroplane seemed to collapse altogether and fell to the ground.
Expert opinion was provided by Major Brooke-Popham, who said that the primary cause of the accident was possibly due to a rod working the exhaust in the engine breaking. This in turn would have probably broken the vertical strut and the wires that kept the wings in position. Fritz Kollhaven of Duperdussin agreed, adding that the plane would have then been impossible to steer. The following year, in May 1913, ground witnesses described the sound of a loud sharp crack when BE Biplane being flown by experienced Irish pilot, Lieutenant Desmond Arthur (1884–1913) of the Second Squadron, Military Wing, then at about 2,000feet. The weather was favourable for flying but following the loud noise one of the wings collapsed and it plunged to the ground landing besides a railway track.
On investigating these and other similar accidents, it was found that lack of maintenance was a principle cause. Indeed, it was cited that because of problems and breakdowns it had taken Lieutenant Arthur 5 days to fly from Farnborough to Montrose, where his accident had happened. In parliament it was agreed that a Maintenance Division of the RFC should be set up immediately. That the Division should be made up of officers, non-commissioned officers and men, all of whom were skilled mechanics and had received full flying instruction and training in the construction of the aircraft and maintenance. The Division was to be divided into sections, each with responsibility for specific aircraft and that each of these units were to be brigaded under the command of a brigade aeroplane officer and each with its own repair shop. This eventually came about and also included ground maintenance crews comprised of mechanics, fitters, metalsmiths and armourers as well as an equipment officer and a transport officer. Each establishment also had a car, five light tenders, seven heavy tenders, two repair lorries, eight motorcycles and eight trailers.
In Germany, the interest in aeronautics and the possible usage, both civilian and particularly military continued to grow. This was fuelled by the assumption that the country was vulnerable to invasion on two fronts – France in the west and from the east, Russia. As a defensive measure, in 1905 the German Army Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913), had drawn up a plan based on at first, taking the offensive against France, quickly beating her and forcing her surrender before Russia had a chance to mobilise her armed forces. To fulfill the Schlieffen plan, as it was called, Germany began building up her military strength including aeronautics.
For this reason the German Military were interested in researching and developing aeroplanes and they held public competitions to assess their versatility. The shows were fully supported by the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918), who organised the provision of trophies and prize money. Typically, in May 1913, at the Strasbourg aeroplane show, three prizes were awarded. The first was for the best all round performance, the second for the best reconnaissance flight and finally a prize for reliability. On that particular occasion the first prize went to Lieutenant Canter flying a German War Office Rumpler-Taube monoplane. This was the first German military aeroplane to be mass-produced and had a 72 horsepower Daimler engine. Canter’s companion on the flight was Lieutenant Bohmer and he received the prize for the best reconnaissance reports. The third prize, the Prince Albert William Henry of Prussia (1862-1929) Trophy for reliability, was awarded to Lieutenant von Hiddensson flying a Deutsche Flugzeug-Werke (DFW), Mars monoplane. Both the DFW Mars monoplanes and biplanes were consistently found to be reliable and were purchased by both the German military and the British Admiralty.
At Swingate, due to the mounting demands of a possible war, the training of ground forces became paramount. Because of the increasing number of military exercises the site ceased to be used as an aerodrome. Then on 14 October 1912, a 450-foot long Zeppelin paid a clandestine visit to north Kent. Shortly afterwards the War Office made £45.000 available to extend the Swingate site and to build a flying depot. The Commander was to be Major Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding (1882-1970) and the new airfield, named Dover (St Margaret’s) aerodrome, was formally established in June 1913 but it was generally known as the Swingate airfield or aerodrome.
Eventually the aerodrome covered 219acres with three large hangars constructed of brick 180feetx100feet and twelve portable timber and canvas Bessonneau hangars. Besides the hangars, the site had administrative and recreational buildings, workshops, motorised transport garages and a coal yard. During October and November 1913, a portion of No 5 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps with two Maurice Farman biplanes arrived with the pilots, and ground crew all of whom were billeted in the former Langdon Prison. With the possiblity of more men arriving it was decided to accommodate them in Nissen huts – prefabricated steel structures made of arcs of corrugated iron that could be assembled in a few hours. When completed, the aerodrome was categorised as First Class with No 5 Squadron based there.
During this time, on Dover’s Seafront, the Admiralty requisitioned Guilford Battery and the surrounding grounds for the Royal Naval Seaplane Patrol. This was part of the Naval wing of the RFC that on 1 July 1914 separated and became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). In 1913 new barracks and administrative buildings were erected at Fort Burgoyne to accommodate the expected influx of men. On Liverpool Street, near the Seafront, new Territorial headquarters, which included a riding school, was completed for use by the Dover Units of the Royal Field Artillery, Royal East Kent Mounted Rifles and the Cinque Ports Royal Engineers.
Besides Swingate, other RFC camps were established in the Dover area including at both Dover Castle and Fort Burgoyne, also on Western Heights in the Citadel, South Front and the Grand Shaft Barracks. Prior to redesignation, these camps were classed as Permanent Peace Stations and when the Duke of York’s school was requisitioned by the Depot of the Royal Fusiliers, it too received the same classification along with Langdon Prison, which was renamed Langdon Fort. Additionally, camps were set up at Archcliffe, the Danes on Long Hill, Broad Lees adjacent to Swingate on the Downs, Maxton and at the RNAS Guston Aerodrome on Northfall Meadow. There were also Rest Camps at the Oil Mills on Snargate Street, Victoria Park and at South Front Barracks on Western Heights.
In the last week of July 1914, the Dover Company of the Royal Engineers and the London Electrical Engineers arrived in the town to operate searchlights. The War Office, on 29 July, issued a notice to the RNAS that they were to confine themselves to home defence and the protection of vulnerable points from possible attack by enemy aircraft and airships. The RFC were told that they were to support the Army. On Saturday 1 August in accordance to the Schlieffen plan, Germany declared war on Russia, invaded Luxembourg and crossed the French frontier at several points. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, issued the order to mobilise all the Royal Navy personnel and the warships still in Dover harbour to establish a war footing. Channel ferries were crossing Dover Starait at speed and out of schedules endeavouring to bring back to England as many people as possible before War commenced. In Dover crowds surrounded the information posts, such as Leney’s brewery office on Castle Street to find out the latest news. They in turn were kept up to date by telephone from the Coastguard at Spioen Kop wireless telegraph station on Western Heights.
On Sunday 2 August, Russia joined in the conflict on the side of Serbia and France was immediately embroiled. Germany declared war on France and proceeded to march through Belgium, thus violating the Treaty of London of 1839. This recognised and guaranteed the independence and neutrality of Belgium and confirmed the independence of the German-speaking part of Luxembourg. During the evening of the August Bank Holiday Monday, 3 August, some 60 aeroplanes arrived at Swingate aerodrome by which time it was confirmed that Major Dowding, who was head of Fighter Command in World War II (1939-1945) most notably in the Battle of Britain (1940), remained in charge at Swingate. Brigadier-General Henderson had been appointed Commander of the RFC. The Military Wing was commanded by Major Frederick Hugh Sykes (1877-1954), later Air Vice Marshal and knighted. The Naval Wing, or the Royal Naval Air Service as it had been renamed, was under Commander Charles Rumney Samson (1883-1931).
At 23.00hrs on Monday 3 August 1914, the Prime Minister (1908-1916) Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), on behalf of Britain declared War on Germany in accordance with the Treaty of London. What was to begin was expected to be all over by Christmas but in reality it was an intensive and vicious war that was to last until 11 November 1918. Eventually it was fought on four fronts:
– Western Front, considered from the outset to be the decisive Front and Swingate was directly linked.
– Eastern Front, with Russia;
– Italian Front, in the Alps;
– Balkan Front, against the Ottoman Empire – a state that had controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa since 1299.
2. 1914 – It will all be over by Christmas
Immediately, in Dover, Mayor Edwin Farley (1864-1939) and the Dover Coast Defence Commander, Brigadier-General Fiennes Henry Crampton (1862-1938), signed notices declaring that the port and town of Dover were to be ‘Fortress Dover’. The headquarters would be at the Castle and Rear Admiral Horace Hood (1870-1916) had been appointed the Commander in Chief. The next day Brigadier-General Crampton was promoted to the General Officer Commanding (G.O.C.) Fortress Dover and notices were distributed that stated mobilisation had been ordered and the Defences of Dover had been placed on a war footing, both on land and at sea. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), a significant number of Royal Navy ships and all of Britain’s military air fleet were concentrated at Dover.
Entrance and exit to the town could only take place by the railways and the main roads to Folkestone (old A20), Deal (A258) and Canterbury (old A2). Each were well guarded and under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914, a limited number of special ‘Dover Garrison’ passes, were necessary for all those who required to enter or leave the town. This applied to all military and naval personnel as well as the general public. The passes were issued by Dover’s Chief Police Constable, David Fox (1864-1924). The military authorities also had the power to arrest and search anyone approaching the harbour, the Castle, any defensive works and the Seafront. All local newspapers were subject to censorship by the military. On Tuesday 4 August air-raid drills commenced for all civilians and some shelters opened including the vaults of Leney’s Phoenix Brewery in Dolphin Lane. Posted in the window of the company’s offices in Castle Street were notices of all official rulings, news from the Front line and as the War progressed, the casualties who had connections with the town.
On 23 June Earl Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) had arrived in Dover from Egypt and returned home to Broome Park, near Canterbury to celebrate his 64th birthday on 24 June. On the morning of 3 August he was at Dover and about to cross to Calais and return to Egypt, when he was called by telegram to take up the position of Secretary of State for War (1914-1916). The following day, 4 August, Sir John French, from Ripple near Dover, was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (1914-1915) that was to go to the Western Front.
In an attempt to drive the German Army from the occupied territories on the Western Front, the Allies had agreed to mobilise a coalition force comprising of more than twenty nations. During August, to try and ensure that none would attempt to negotiate a separate peace with the Central Powers (Germany and her allies), on 4 September, Britain, France and Russia signed the Declaration of London. To assist their Allies, Britain had agreed to help meet their financial obligations of goods purchased from the British Empire and the United States. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer (1908-1915), David Lloyd George (1863-1945) was well aware that both the French and the Russian gold reserves were far greater than those held by the Bank of England but it was generally assumed that the War would be over by Christmas. At sea, it was agreed that the Royal Navy would provide the greatest number of ships and on the Western Front, the French and British Armies were to provide most of the soldiers and equipment.
Although France was way ahead of other countries in aeroplane production, including the United States, when War was declared it was evident that the Germans had realised the value of aviation. Their air force was made up of the military Luftstreitkräfte and the naval Marine-Fliegerabteilung, with 232 aeroplanes between them. The aeroplanes were flown by highly trained pilots who were expected to play an active part in the German fighting force. Further, the German senior personnel believed in the potential of both the aeroplanes and the pilots. Thus a team of active aviation researchers, highly trained mechanics and a number of aircraft factories supported their airforces.
By way of contrast, the British RFC and the RNAS had 272 aeroplanes between them but neither the Army or the Admiralty had very little confidence in their potential. Not only were the aeroplanes not considered capable of participating in aerial combat, the pilots were only allowed to carry revolvers or automatic pistols for personal defence! However, officers such as Trenchard, Dowding, Kennedy and Musgrave made their views felt and by the summer of 1914 the British military air fleet consisted of five squadrons, made up of a large number of privately owned aeroplanes – borrowed or belonging to the pilots:
RFC No 1 Squadron – an observation balloon squadron, made up of airships that was shortly after transferred to the RNAS.
RFC Nos. 2,3,4 and 5 aeroplane squadrons primarily used for reconnaissance
At the outbreak of War, RFC Nos. 2,3,4 and 5 were sent to Swingate aerodrome.
On 2 August the Germans had demanded the unobstructed passage through Belgium in order to achieve their objective of advancing south to Paris via Verdun-sur-Meuse, and Marne in north-eastern France. The following evening, 3 August, the Belgians took measures to obstruct the German advance at Liège on the Meuse River and on the morning of 4 August, forty-four German divisions invaded Belgium. Their objective was to attack the rear of the French Army massed in the north-east of France, mostly in Lorraine, with the first offensive being the Battle of Mulhouse, south of Lorraine (7-10 August). This was followed by the Battle of Haelen (12 August) in Belgium and although a Belgium victory, the Germans managed to capture Namur, Liège and Antwerp. Between 14 and 25 August the French took a strong offensive stance in the Battle of Lorraine, with the objective of pushing the Germans back. The German priority, on the other hand, was to continue with the Schlieffen plan in order to force France to surrender attacking the French at the Battle of Ardennes, between Namur to the north, Meuse in the east, Marne in the south and Aisne in the west. This took place between 21 and 23 August and at the same time, they engaged France and Belgium at the Battle of Charleroi between 21 and 23 August.
The BEF under the command of Sir John French had landed in France on 8 August with the remit to stop the German advance on Paris. Three days later Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, who had been appointed to command the RFC in the field with his second in command Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick H Sykes (1877-1954) from the RFC headquarters, left Farnborough, crossing the Channel by sea, arriving on Thursday 13 August in Amiens, France. That day, 2-5 squadrons in 56 aeroplanes left Swingate also for Amiens, at intervals of about one minute. Not all made it, and from Amiens those that did flew on to Maubeuge, close to the Belgian border, northern France. The first to arrive was a Royal Aircraft Factory BE 2a – a two-bay tractor design biplane flown by Lieutenant Hubert Dunsterville Harvey-Kelly (1891-1917), who had taken off at 06.25hours. An aircraft constructed with a tractor configuration has the engine mounted with the airscrew in front so that the aircraft is ‘pulled’ through the air, as opposed to the pusher configuration, in which the airscrew is behind and propels the aircraft forward.
No. 2 Squadron, led by Major Charles James Burke (1882-1918) from Limerick, Ireland, and No. 3 Squadron led by Flight Commander Lionel Evelyn Oswald Charlton (1879-1958) flew Bleriot monoplanes and Henri Farman biplanes. No. 4 Squadron flew Farmans, B.E.2cs and Avro 504s – a two-bay all-wooden biplane with a square-section fuselage. Major John Maitland Salmond (1881-1968) who eventually became the Chief of the Air Staff (1930-1933) led the squadron. Number 5 (Army Co-operation) Squadron flew BE.2a aeroplanes, some of which had been produced by Vickers the previous year while the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. made others. The British engineering firm, Vickers, was founded in 1828 and Vickers Ltd (Aviation Department) was formed in 1911. Two of the pilots were Robert Raymond Smith-Barry (1886-1949) and Louis Arbon Strange (1891-1966), both distinguished aviators with Smith-Barry developing flying instruction methods and Strange successfully introducing wartime aeroplane adaptations.
For the duration of the War most of the aeroplanes were supplied to the RFC by 8 private firms who built the aeroplanes to either a government or private approved design. However, the main provider of machines was the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. The supply of engines was a major problem, eventually eased by experimentation, innovation and replication of foreign produced engines. At the outbreak of War the aero-engine industry in Britain was almost non-existent. There was a lack of experience, skilled labour, suitable engineering works and general wherewithal. As the War progressed expertise increased such that, by the end of the War Britain possessed the largest number and most efficient aircraft engineers in the world – many had learnt their trade at Swingate.
None of the airmen carried any sort of armaments, as they were not to be involved in combat but one aircraft per squadron was fitted with very crude wireless apparatus in order to transmit directions for artillery fire. This equipment consisted of a large and heavy spark set with its batteries mounted in the plane and a massive crystal receiver on the ground. On the ground, artillery batteries had transmitters consisting of a large, heavy unreliable spark set with cumbersome batteries and a massive crystal receiver. The apparatus used long wave . The noise of the engine, wind, gunfire etc in the open cockpit drowned out the sound of any Morse Code transmissions sent from the ground. In order to instruct the pilots the direction to be observed, the men in the battery signalled using flags and/or laid strips of white cloth on the ground in prearranged patterns.
On arrival in France, a total of 63 aeroplanes, 105 officers, 155 men and 320 transport vehicles made up the RFC (British Expeditionary Force) air support contingent. On 22 August the BEF moved up to the Belgium town of Mons with the intention of supporting the French Fifth Army in two lines like a broad arrow with its tip at Mons. However, at the Battle of Charleroi the weight of the German offensive drove the French and Belgians back. From both cavalry and air reconnaissance reports, it was evident that the German forces were rapidly closing in on Mons.
Up to this point, the Germans had employed observation balloons to give them a tactical advantage during the engagements and it became obvious to the British high command that the mapping of enemy positions was of paramount importance if gunners were to be accurate, particularly when firing shells. For the Battle of Mons aircraft reconnaissance transmitted where to aim shells with reference to known features on the issued maps, for instance they would try to tap out, in Morse Code ‘100 yds est of chrch’ and if nearby the pilot would physically point in the appropriate direction. Initially the BEF managed to hold the Germans but the severely weakened French and Belgium armies left the BEF exposed. Although the BEF were eventually forced to abandon their positions it was recognised that the information provided by the pilots of the reconnaissance aircraft did help to avoided a catastrophe. The German superiority however, including the use of aeroplanes in combat, overcame the Allies resistance at the Battles of Le Cateau (25 August), Noyon (26 August) and St. Quentin (29–30 August).
On 3 September French reconnaissance aircraft pilots spotted General Alexander Heinrich Rudolph von Kluck’s (1846-1934) German 1 Army change direction. This contradicted intercepted radio messages between the German high commanders that stated instead of going south-west to Paris, the German Armies were to turn east in order to trap the Allies between Verdun-sur-Meuse and Paris. Field Marshal Karl Wilhelm Paul von Bülow (1846-1921) German 2 Army was to be the striking force while General von Kluck’s (1846-1934)’s Army was to protect the flank and the Allies were taking action accordingly.
So far in the offensive, von Kluck’s Army had been the striking force and at that time, in keeping with the pre-war tradition of German field commanders’ independence, he was free to take decisive action contrary to that of the high command if needs necessitated. Von Kluck was aware that more British reinforcements had landed in France but was unaware as to how many and their combat capabilities. As his Army was moving east, he reasoned that potentially the British could be a danger to his tiring army, so he took independent decisive action and turned south-west towards Paris rather than going east towards Verdun. The Allies changed their action plan.
A counter-attack was launched by the French and the BEF along the Marne River that became known as the First Battle of Marne (5-12 September). This forced the German Army to retreat northwest to a defensive line along the Aisne River and resulted in the First Battle of Aisne (13-28 September). On 15 September an RFC reconnaissance pilot flying over the German lines took the first British Army aerial photograph of the conflict. In January 1915, the Experimental Photographic Section of the Royal Flying Corps was formed under the command of Lieutenant John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, later 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara (1884-1964). It consisted of two officers and three other ranks.
The Battle of Aisne was followed by what became known as The Race to the Sea as the Germans aimed for the Channel and the Allies fought to stop them. After a series of disorganised battles in which both sides suffered huge losses the Germans final attempt at a breakthrough was near the Belgium city of Ypres in late October 1914. Only the British Army, under the command of Sir John French remained at Ypres to stem the advancing Germans and save the Channel Ports and Paris. Lying on a forward spur of the low ridge that covers the town of Ypres, is the village of Gheluvelt and this was the last point retained in British hands from which the German line could be dominated. By noon on 31 October, the Queens, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Welsh and the Kings Royal Rifles regiments had been overwhelmed, while on the right the South Wales Borderers had been forced to retreat. This tantamounted to the effective loss of Gheluvelt creating a serious gap in the British line through which the Germans could break through.
That afternoon the Second Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment in Polygon Wood – afterwards known as Black Watch Corner – under the command of Major Edward Barnard Hankey (1875-1959) and guided by Captain Augustus Francis Andrew Nicol Thorne (1885-1970) who later became a General and was knighted, of the Grenadier Guards – attacked. It was raining heavily and they were in full view of German guns. Out of 370 men, 187 were killed or wounded but they saved Gheluvelt and a foothold was secured between Ypres and the French border. Following the Battle, both sides took up positions in a continuous line of trenches, barbed wire entanglements, blockhouses and underground shelters. But by then Belgium was totally occupied by the Germans except for the Ypres enclave and much of France was also occupied. Albeit the militarised zone of the German Front along the Belgium border was totally separate from the rest of occupied France. Of note, for the saving of Ypres, Sir John French was created the Earl of Ypres and when he was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Ripple near Dover, on 27 May 1925 the Second Battalion of the Worcester Regiment formed the funeral party.
Throughout all of these campaigns the RFC sustained heavy losses undertaking reconnaissance yet the airmen asked for authority to participate in combat! Taking little notice of reports that were coming from the Front that both the German and French, like the British aviators, were proving the capabilities of aeroplanes – something that was echoed by the troops on the ground, it was left to the media to make these views felt. The Times (14.09.1914 page 6) reported a conversation with a private in the Royal West Kent Regiment, who told of an air-battle between a German and a French aircraft. He said, ‘the Frenchman manoeuvred to get the upper position of the German and after about ten minutes or so the Frenchman got on top and blazed away with his revolver. He injured the German so much that he was forced to descent and when found he was quite dead.’
Nonetheless the British pilots were still refused to be allowed to participate in combat. But at Noyon, northern France, on 26 August 1914, Harvey-Kelly virtually tail-gated a German Taube II aeroplane while flying his BE 2a. As he was not allowed to use armaments, Harvey-Kelly used aggressive flying tactics and forced the German pilot to land. When later the British military attitudes towards the role of airmen changed, it was officially acknowledged that Harvey-Kelly was the first British pilot to bring down a German aeroplane! The Taube was originally designed by Igo Etrich (1879-1967) and was known for its unique wing form, which was copied from the seeds of the Peruvian cucumber (Alsomitra macrocarpa) and both the seeds and the plane were renowned for being able to fly long distances.
Back in Britain as part of the Fortress Dover defences, a series of trenches and redoubts were constructed on Swingate Downs. From aerial photographs held by the Imperial War Museum taken later in the War, it appears that there were three redoubts built at Swingate. Also, adjacent to the accommodation provided for the RNAS at Guston Aerodrome, more RFC accommodation huts were erected and the nearby Connaught Barracks had been built. Between Fort Burgoyne and the Duke of York’s school, tin huts (later called Tin Town) were erected as accommodation for the RNAS, whose role at this time was to provide reconnaissance reports for the defence of the Admiralty Harbour.
At the Castle, the military wireless station in a decommissioned battery set up by Major Kennedy was renamed the Port War Signalling Station and kitted out. Kennedy had adapted the original gun battery magazines to house a generator and electrical batteries to provide power for the wireless. He had also erected a tall aerial, close to the Castle wall which was stabilised by a series of large blocks spaced equidistant for the rings which held the stays connected to the mast. The station communicated with Admiralty House on Marine Parade, Royal Navy ships, the Admiralty signal station on Admiralty Pier and the Admiralty Spioen Kop signal station in the Citadel on Western Heights.
The Coastguard at this time came under the auspices of the Admiralty and in 1903 the office of Admiral Commanding Coastguard and Reserves had been established. Admiral Sir Arthur Murray Farquhar 1855-1937) was appointed and held the post until June 1915. The main Dover Coastguard Station, or to give its correct name Townsend Coastguard station, was at Aycliffe. Its antenna was on Shakespeare Cliff and it the Coastguard was also in communication with Portland and Sheerness as well as both the local navy and military signal stations. On the east side of the Castle close to Swingate Down were Coastguard cottages not far from a typical coastguard watchtower on the top of cliffs close to the site of the present day coastguard station. Up to 1898, the watchtower was approached by a zigzag path, on Corn Hill at the eastern end of Langdon Hole but was demolished that year to make way for the Langdon Battery.
A second coastguard signal station occupied the top floor of the Clock Tower on the Seafront and that one was in contact with the Townsend Station and the Harbour signal station which occupied the same premises on Admiralty Pier as the Royal Navy signal station. Prior to World War I there were about 22 coastguard stations along the coast of East Kent between Margate and Hythe. Many were equipped with wireless signalling equipment, as the watch tower on Swingate Down was, as the War progressed. Retired naval and military personnel along with sea captains on two-year secondment awaiting ships, mainly staffed these stations and since 1857, the Coastguard had been formally embodied for ‘the Defence of the Coasts of the Realm, and the more ready manning of the Navy.’ This did not include rendering assistance to vessels in distress and saving of lives of persons on board.
In November 1914, the term Military Wing of the RFC was abolished and replaced by Administrative Wing but the favoured term for military aviators was just RFC. By that time there were six squadrons in France, divided into 2 ‘Wings’ of 3 squadrons each. The Wings were commanded by lieutenant-colonels. However, the role of pilots remained that of reconnaissance but a British squadron from Swingate and Dunkirk successfully bombarded the Belgium port of Zeebrugge on 23 November. An experimental branch of the Military Wing of the RFC had been formed back in March 1913 under Musgrave that included research in ballooning, kiting, photography, meteorology, bomb-dropping and wireless telegraphy. The latter, in which Major Kennedy was involved together with Captain Baron Trevenen James (1889-1915), led to the creation of the Headquarters Wireless Telegraphy Unit (HQ WTU) on 27 September 1914.
The growing pressure on communication, particularly by wireless, was beginning to be recognised and on 8 December 1914 at St. Omer, France the No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron, under the command of Musgrave and including Captain James, was part of the newly formed Bomber Squadron of the RFC. The bombs, at that time, were basically aerodynamically shaped hand grenades, weighing between 1 and 2 pounds with a percussion fuze in the nose that detonated on impact with a hard surface. They were carried in the cockpit of the plane or gondola, in the case of airships, and dropped by hand over the side. No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron was made up of two flights and they were tasked with developing the use of radio for reconnaissance missions through artillery spotting on which bombs could be dropped.
In command of the 1st Wing of the Indian Corps was Major Trenchard, and although he could see what Musgrave was trying to achieve, as his commission was such that he had no influence with the senior military personnel. They were not impressed and the project was officially abandoned on 22 March 1915. However, the use of the wireless failed to impress the senior military personnel and was officially abandoned on 22 March 1915. The preference was for the Telegraph Troop, that had been formed before the War, to install telephone equipment and as a mounted unit to carry messages. The Troop also had dogs trained to carry messages between trenches and homing pigeons trained to carry messages back to the established Headquarters from the front line. Albeit, in England, an increasing number of amateur wireless operators that were impressed by the apparatus were also being arrested and heavily fined for having it without the consent of the Post Office.
On the Western Front, Field Marshal French and Marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre (1852-1931) were both of the opinion that only a war of attrition – wearing the Germans down over a prolonged period of conflict – would bring about their capitulation. Albeit, even jointly, both the British and French armies knew that they were against a formidable enemy. As the winter of 1914 set in, it was agreed that the British would launch an offensive to push the Germans further north. Field Marshal French planned to achieve this by making six simultaneous small-scale attacks in the Givenchy area of north west France, by men of the Indian Corps. These men had shown their mettle at Ypres where they had suffered heavy losses but carried on nonetheless.
Field Marshal Roberts, although retired, took a keen interest in the Indian troops that had arrived on the Western Front. He quickly made it known that they were inadequately attired for the cold European winter. It was also evident to Roberts, that their religious beliefs were not being taken account of with regards to the contents of their food rations and had made a formal complaint to the High Command. These and other oversights he was personally dealing with through Trenchard, then on 14 November, Roberts died of pneumonia at St Omer, while visiting the Indian Corps. His body was taken to Ascot, Berkshire, by special train for a family funeral service on 18 November before being taken to London for a lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Field Marshal Roberts was given a state funeral with representatives of the Indian Corps, including Trenchard, in attendance followed by burial in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Warmer clothes eventually arrived for the Indian Corps, but footware was totally inadequate for the quagmires of the trenches. Further, stocks of ammunitions were in short supply and so only forty rounds were issued with each gun and a limited number of hand grenades. In the early hours of Saturday 19 December the temperature was below freezing and it was very wet when the Indian Corps attacked, in what became known as the Battle of Givenchy (18-22 December). Although they came under heavy German machine gun fire the Corps were initially successful, taking two German lines.
The enemy then quickly regrouped and with the backing of aeroplanes, counter attacked. The minefields, the Indian Corps had traversed, together with gunfire and bombs the Germans dropped from their aeroplanes soon caused a significant number of injuries and deaths. Then the German infantry moved in and over 800 hundred men of the Corps were taken prisoners of war. Before the Battle started, many were already suffering from debilitating frostbite and trenchfoot – a painful circulatory disease caused by standing in cold water for long periods of time that resulted in blisters, open sores, fungal infections and eventually gangrene. Of the 800, many died before even reaching the prisoner of war camp. Shortly after Trenchard was promoted to Command the RFC in the Field (France) but the whole of the Indian episode was to have a major impact that was to influence his decision making as he continued to rise through the ranks.
Due to the heavy losses but to avoid the need to introduce conscription, Kitchener launched a campaign designed by graphic artist, Alfred Leete (1882–1933) featuring a picture of Kitchener pointing at the reader with the caption ‘The Country Wants You.’ The campaign was successful with over one million men enlisting by January 1915. Nicknamed ‘Kitchener’s Army’ in December 1914, four battalions were formed in Dover: the 9th Buffs, the 10th East Surrey Regiment, and the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. These battalions were attached to Western Heights, Fort Burgoyne and Swingate but were billeted with the civilian population. They remained in Dover for several months, mainly undertaking drafting administration and organising training, clothing, transport etc for other volunteers that were destined to be sent to join the Expeditionary Forces on the Continent. The defence of Kent was in the hands of the Kent Defence Corps – a fully equipped force of both the naval and military services with headquarters in Canterbury. Because of the influx of new recruits, the British Expeditionary Force, under the overall command of Sir John French, was split into two on 26 December 1914. The First Army was under Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) and the Second Army under General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien (1858-1930).
At their own request and where possible, new recruits were kept within the communities they had come from. On completion of training they were shipped from England as reinforcements, mainly via Dover – Calais, on commandeered cross-Channel ferries. These had been commandeered as transport ships at the beginning of the War and many were also used as hospital ships for the return journey. The recruits were then taken to the Front Line on buses. Using the same vehicles and ships, the injured members of the Indian Corps had been taken back to Calais then on to Dover. During December 1914, some 4,000 men were killed on the Western Front and many more were injured. Because of the atrocious conditions that the Indian Corps had faced prior to the Battle of Givenchy and the inadequacy of their armaments during the Battle, the British General Staff feared possible mutiny. It was suggested and agreed that the remaining members should be withdrawn from the Front Line over the following months but due to shortage of men, this did not happen. Instead, they did receive adequate clothing, foot ware and appropriate food.
At 11.00hrs on Wednesday 24 December 1914 the first German aerial bombing raid on the United Kingdom took place. Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski flying a Taube II aircraft dropped a bomb aimed at Dover Castle. The bomb landed in a cabbage patch near Taswell Street. The blast broke an adjoining window and threw the St James Rectory gardener, James Banks, out of a tree but he was only slightly hurt. Nearby, there is a Dover Society plaque marking the event.
Two aeroplanes from Swingate and a seaplane from Mote Bulwark chased Prondzynski’s aircraft, the pilots of which were only armed with pistols that they were only allowed to use in self-defence. Lt. Von Prondzynski managed to evade them and when he returned to Germany he was given a hero’s welcome. In Dover fragments of the bomb were mounted on a shield and presented to George V. Another fragment was bought at auction for £20, by a man from Bootle on Merseyside and the money given to the Red Cross. The raid was one of the rare occurrences of an aeroplane attack on Britain in the early part of the War, the Germans preferring the less flimsy airships that could carry much larger bombs than the hand thrown bombs carried on aeroplanes.
The Germans had four types of airships, the Zeppelin, the Shütte-Lanz, the Parseval and the ‘M’ type military airship. The Zeppelin was recognised by its long stretched tubiform shape envelope with one, the L 33, brought down in Essex. It was described as 680feet long weighed 50 tons, had four gondolas, a total of 6 x 240 horsepower Mercédès engines and five propellers. It was estimated that she carried 2,000gallons of petrol and the envelope was filled with 2million cubic feet of gas. The L 33 was fitted with 60 bomb-droppers, had three control wheels in the captain’s cabin and a crew of 22 officers and men. It took about a year to build her and cost between £250,000 and £500,000.
The Shütte-Lanz had a smaller fish-form body and carried behind them horizontal and vertical steering surfaces. They had five gondolas, three under the keel and the other two were higher, right and left of the keel. The Parseval had a cigar-form body and was more compact, carrying only one gondola from which a thick tube led to the airship body. The steering planes were four sided and the colour of the skin was yellow. Finally, the Military airships were a torpedo shape with the keel running the full length of the underside. The conning tower was at the front end of the keel with the two engine cabins further aft. The keel was built into the gas envelope to form one body and the hull was again yellow.
In the trenches, the distance between those of the Allies and those of the Germans was not far, indeed, they could hear the sound of each other’s voices and smell cooking. Both sides, by Christmas 1914, had suffered severe losses and the trenches were cold, wet and muddy. If a soldier put his head above the parapet, it was sure to be shot at and comrades lay dead in no-mans land between the two lines of opposing trenches. The senior officers, concerned that the men would become morose and lethargic, which would affect future offensives, made sure that they were kept busy and at the same time instilled harsh discipline. On the evening of 24 December, some German soldiers stationed near Neuve Chapelle erected Christmas trees, complete with candles and paper lanterns on the parapets of their trenches and started singing well known carols.
Stationed on the other side of no man’s land was the British 18th Brigade under the command of Brigadier-General Walter Norris Congreve (1862-1927) from Chatham, Kent. Of what happened that day, Congreve recounted in his report, saying that one of his men climbed over the parapet of his trench, into ‘no man’s land’ and joined in the singing of a carol. ‘Other men then joined him from his platoon and soon what seemed like a choir of men, both British and German, were singing carols.’ He went on to say that officers and men, from both sides, exchanged cigars and cigarettes. The Brigadier-General added that he was reluctant to personally witness the scene of the truce for fear he would be a prime target for German snipers! By Christmas Day, the Front Line truces had spread and this also enabled the men from both sides to remove from no man’s land their dead comrades and bury them.
3. 1915 – Inventions, Innovations and Developments
By New Year 1915, thought-through contingency plans were being put into operation and the British high command were beginning to realise that aeroplanes were a valuable asset. The Central Flying School at Upavon, Wiltshire had increased its intake to 40 students a time but there was an acute shortage of experienced pilot instructors as most had been sent overseas. Experienced pilots were brought back for R&R (rest and recuperation), during which time they trained new officers to fly. There was also only 4 government aerodromes – one of which was Swingate – so civilian aerodromes were pressed into service.
Other changes were afoot when an Army order, dated 16 January 1915, was issued abolishing the post of Officer commanding the RFC. It was specified that the ‘Wings,’ which had been created the previous November, were to consist of between two and four squadrons under a Wing Commander. Further, one flight in each squadron was to specialise in bombing as well as normal duties. An additional Wing Commander was also appointed to command the RFC depots, one of which was Swingate, and he was in charge of records, reserve aeroplane squadrons and additional training. Civilian voluntary recruits, without flying experience on enlistment were also sent to an RFC depot for training. Their training started by learning the ordinary duties of a soldier and then as air mechanics for the technical section of the RFC. The training was expected to take six months, followed by specialist training at an aerodrome that would be his base. Some out of the ranks were given the opportunity to train as pilots, observers or photographers as well as mechanics and all who trained at Swingate undertook a course in aerial gunnery at Lydd and on the practise range at Hythe. By May 1915 there were eleven government aerodromes and 235 officers were actually under instruction as pilots. Amongst the trainees were volunteers from Canada and South Africa who successfully completed training. By the end of 1915 approximately 800 Canadians and possibly twice the number of South Africans were RFC pilots, observers or ground crew. On gaining their wings, all the pilots and observers plus graduating ground crew were given 48 hours leave before being posted to the Front.
Meanwhile, enemy U-boats (submarines) were the scourge of Channel shipping. The first German U-boat appeared in the Channel around the middle of September 1914, sinking the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy off Zeebrugge. Immediately after, the Admiralty gave notice that a minefield was to be laid in the eastern entrance to the English Channel, between the East Goodwin Lightship and Ostend. The Scout boat, Attentive, was attacked by a U-boat/submarine on 27 September, which led to the withdrawal of the Scouts from patrol duties. They were replaced by the Dover Patrol as part of Fortress Dover that was under the command of Vice Admiral Hood. The Dover Patrol consisted of naval destroyers, small submarines, drifters, requisitioned fishing vessels and the Royal Naval Seaplane Patrol based on Marine Parade. The Patrol’s main function was to stop U-boats passing down the Channel.
On 21 January 1915, German U-boats moved into newly erected submarine bases along the Channel, North Sea and into the Baltic. The main German base for the Channel was at Bruges, the capital of West Flanders in northwest Belgium. The city had outlets at Zeebrugge nearby on the North Sea coast of Belgium and further south at Ostend. Germany saw the behaviour of British sea defenders, such as the Grand Fleet, based in the Orkneys at Scapa Flow, and the Dover Patrol, as a blockade against their much-needed resources from America. This was confirmed in their minds on 11 February when RFC pilots based at Swingate and under the command of Wing Commander Samson of the RNAS, were ordered to attack these submarine bases. A squadron of 34 aeroplanes attacked the bases at Bruges and Ostend by the pilots dropping bombs over the side of their cockpits. On 16 February, 48 British aeroplanes bombarded Ostend, Middelkerke, Ghuistelles and Zeebrugge in Belgium. On 18 February 1915 Germany retaliated by launching their blockade of Great Britain, declaring that, ‘All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland including the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From 18 February onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within the war zone will be destroyed without warning to the crew and passengers.’
During this time Swingate had become a major training establishment of pilots for the RFC and trainees with their tutors piloted the aeroplanes. The men and officers commandeered as tutors at Swingate all had practical experience in their various fields on the Western Front and initially they were none too happy about their new posts. Indeed, they quickly made it known that they had signed up to fight. Then Major Trenchard visited Swingate, was persuasive and before he left the tutors saw their new role in a positive light. He later noted that pilot tutors had said that if they were going to be allowed to participate in combat, they would prefer single seater planes to two-seaters, as they were more easily manoeuvrable. Two-seaters aeroplanes, they had said, were cumbersome. Further, the Swingate training aeroplanes were mainly BE.2a’s from the Western Front, damaged but sufficiently airworthy to be flown back to Swingate for repairs. These were carried out by the trainee mechanics on the base under the supervision of experienced tutors and it was also noted that the pilot tutors had asked to have armaments that could be used in combat.
At the time the Lewis machine gun was being used but due to its open bolt firing cycle it was almost impossible to synchronise. Some RNAS aircraft, notably the Bristol Scouts, had an unsynchronised fuselage-mounted Lewis gun positioned to fire directly through the propeller disk, but were not often not synchronised hence the possible reluctance of senior RNAS personnel for pilots to take part in aerial combat. Prior to the War, Vickers designer Archibald (Archie) Reith Low (1878-1969) had been experimenting with machine gun carrying aircraft. The prototype was eventually developed as the pusher type F.B.5 (Fighting Biplane 5), a two-seater rear engined plane that avoided the problem of firing through the two-bladed propeller as it was behind the pilot, facing backward, rather than at the front of the aircraft.
The F.B.5 was armed with a single drum-fed .303 inch Lewis gun mounted at the front cockpit, operated by the observer who could fire it directly forward without an obstructing propeller as well as being reloaded or cleared in flight. Specifically built for air-to-air combat, the tutors at Swingate were impressed, however they did report that due to the pusher design, the single 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape nine-cylinder rotary engine was not as efficient as in tractor designed craft. This was due to the tractor types having the airscrew in front pulling the aircraft through the air, whereas the pusher type resulted in more drag due to the struts and rigging necessary to carry the tail unit. The F.B.5, nicknamed the Gunbus, came off line in February 1915 becoming the world’s first operational fighter aircraft when in July 1915, No 11 Squadron, some leaving from Swingate, arrived in France fully equipped with these new combat planes.
The first major attack launched by the BEF on the Western Front in 1915, was on 10 March at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle (10-13 March 1915). In the previous months a considerable number of fresh troops, crewed aircraft supported by mechanics with equipment plus special units of photographers with cameras designed for purpose had arrived. By this time the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company had also developed their aircraft transmitter and Musgrave’s team devised ways of fitting it into the confined space of the aircraft’s cockpit. The small, compact equipment had a range of 10 to 12 miles and required about 40watts. As it was deemed almost impossible for the pilot to transmit and fly the plane at the same time, the transmitter was designated to be used in two seater aircraft by the observer. To ensure that the transmitting equipment was close at hand, the Morse key was strapped to the top of the observer’s leg between his hip and knee. The battery was on the floor between his feet. Even though the equipment was small, the wireless made it very difficult for the observer to change position, something he had to do if he was to maintain his observations.
Making the ground personnel aware that a message was being sent was usually done by the blasting of a Klaxon horn but the actual transmission of messages was fraught with difficulties. It was almost impossible to continue tuning while rapidly changing distances and altitudes. The actual transmission of messages was also fraught with difficulties particularly tuning in due to the rapidly changing distances and altitudes. The aerial wire was about 250feet long and was unwound by hand from a spool on the fuselage next to the observers’ position. This had to be done with great care, as the wire was deadly if it came loose and wrapped itself round the aeroplane’s control systems. Research had shown that it was possible to use much shorter aerial wire with the metal aeroplanes but most of the aeroplanes on the Front were wooden. There were two more problems, the first was making it clear to the ground personnel where exactly the targets were and second the receiving of messages owing to the noise of the engine.
Musgrave was informed that he was to be transferred to take command of the 104th Royal Field Artillery Battery, but prior to leaving he devised a system with Captain James. He had devised a system using wireless telegraphy to help the artillery hit specific targets based on compass readings and the estimated distance from key locations shown on both the observer’s and the ground artillery commander’s identical maps. With James flying an aeroplane and Musgrave on the ground, they developed and simplified James innovation to enable the observation to be rapidly repeated. Using two identical maps, they divided the area under observation into Zones and each Zone was divided into squares with A, B, C etc. on the horizontal axis going from left to right and 1,2, 3 etc. on the vertical axis going from top to bottom. The observer after identifying the position of an enemy target on his map repeatedly transmitted in Morse Code messages such as A3 etc. to the artillery commander. This was inaugurated at Battle of Neuve-Chapelle and this innovation quickly spread throughout the Allies lines.
Following Musgrave’s transfer, No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron were broken up but on 1 April the former researcher at the Marconi experimental establishment, Brooklands, Captain Charles E Prince, then serving with the Westmoreland Cumberland Yeomanry, was sent to his old establishment. By this time it had been commandeered to become the RFC Wireless Training School and Trenchard told Prince that his remit was to develop ‘a system of air-to-air and air-to-ground radio telephony. A one-mile all-round range was a minimum, no adjustments to the transmitter when in operation, and only one tuning adjustment allowed on the receiver. Perfect speech quality with one hundred per cent reliability was demanded, and the maximum aerial length was 150 feet, to be replaced by a fixed aerial if possible.’
Prince’s commanding officer at Brooklands was Major Hugh Dowding, the first Commandant of Swingate aerodrome, and together the two men increased the size of the training school. There, Prince distinguished himself as a researcher/teacher and shortly after his arrival, he brought together Musgrave’s former No 9 (Wireless) Squadron. This included Captain James and they set up a ‘Wireless Testing Park’ to comply with Trenchard’s orders and develop practical wireless telephony for speech transmission and also to overcome the barrage of cockpit noise. With regards to the second problem, overcoming cockpit noise, Prince was already aware of Fleming’s oscillation or thermionic valve (See Part 1 of the Swingate story) and its subsequent development by Lee De Forest (1873-1961) as a vacuum or electron tube – the radio valve. This received, amplified and transmitted radio signals by controlling electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference had been applied. The result was a loud and clear signal that had first been used by No 9 (Wireless) Squadron on 9 May at the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
However, development of practical wireless telephony remained a conundrum. Prior to the War and while he was working for Marconi, Prince had been working on developing a continuous wave valve transmitter for airborne use. In his present capacity, the first hint of success had come in the summer of 1915 when using a wavelength of 300 metres, speech from air to ground was obtained. However, the trailing antenna was 250 feet in length and the ground to air the communication was in Morse Code. He therefore tried to contact Major Kennedy to ask him to join the ‘Bat’ team, as his Wireless Testing Park team were nicknamed. He was saddened to be told that Kennedy had recently died and was buried at Aldershot Military Cemetery. Albeit, Prince did manage to contact Musgrave’s close colleague Captain James, who was on manoeuvres in France but on 13 July, Captain James was killed near Arret close to Hooge, Flanders – a major war zone almost continually under fire. Frustrated, Prince turned to his former colleagues at Marconi’s and on the promise from Dowding that they would be fast tracked to the position of captain he persuaded them to join up. These engineers included John McGarry Furnival (1892-1962), Lieutenant (later Major) Robert Orme, Lieutenant Edward Herbert Trump (1893-1974), and Richard Whiddington (1885-1970).
On the Western Front the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was not the success the RFC had hoped for. In an effort to delay the progress of enemy reinforcements they had attempted to bomb railway lines at Kortrijk / Courtrai and Menin both in Belgium, Lille, Douai, and Don all in France, with 25 pound and 100 pound bombs. Out of 141 attacks only 3 had been successful. When fighting ceased on 13 March the Allies had gained an area of just over a mile and about 2 miles wide with a loss of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian soldiers either killed or wounded. The Germans had suffered similar losses and 1,700 of their soldiers were taken prisoner.
In the English Channel, attacks on shipping intensified and in April 1915 Admiral Reginald Bacon (1863-1947) was appointed Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover. The RNAS Dover Seaplane establishment at Mote Bulwark on the Seafront and attached to the Dover Patrol, was expanded with both machines and personnel. While at Capel, 240 acres of fields became an RNAS airship station whose main role was to protect troopships crossing the Channel. The pilots and observers working in airships, like their seaplane colleagues, were particularly good in the detection of hostile submarines as travelling at great heights made it easier to see the hostile crafts underwater.
In early May the Admiralty announced that 14 neutral vessels had been destroyed in the three months since Germany had announced the seas around Great Britain was a war zone. Although, Swingate continued to be developed primarily for training aircraft personnel from pilots to mechanics, the tutors often joined their RNAS colleagues working with the Dover Patrol flying planes that had arrived at the station for repair by the trainees, such as the B.E.2a and the Bristol Scout.
The situation continued go badly on the Western Front and on 22 April the German’s introduced a new weapon at Ypres. They released clouds of poisonous chlorine, a strong irritant to the lungs. Prolonged exposure proved fatal and inflicted significant casualties among the British and Canadian troops. Then at the Second Battle of Artois (9 May-18 June) the French Army suffered 102,000 casualties without achieving their objective of regaining the north France coal basin. That remained in German hands. The day long (9 May) Battle of Aubers Ridge resulted in the British Army losing 11,000 men and it took three days to transfer the wounded to field ambulances. At the Battle of Festubert (15-27 May), the combined British, Indian and Canadian casualties amounted to some 16,000 having made no significant contribution to the French offensive. Field Marshal French, told a journalist from the Daily Mail that the catastrophe was due to insufficient quantity and quality of the shells.
On Friday 7 May, in line with the German directive of February 1915, submarine U-20 torpedoed the Cunard passenger liner Lusitania as she sailed in neutral waters, 11 miles off the Irish south coast. The ship sank in eighteen minutes and 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard drowned, leaving only 761 survivors. Of the dead were 128 Americans, which caused outrage in the United States. Before the Lusitania set sail from New York to England, the German embassy had placed newspaper advertisements warning people of the dangers of sailing on British merchant ships such as the Lusitania. The result was a crisis in German/American relations with the United States President (1913-1921) Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) demanding Germany discontinue submarine warfare against merchant and passenger ships and a veiled threat of economic sanctions.
Of note the Lusitania’s distress signal was SOS, unlike the Titanic, which had been – code CQD – the international distress signal used by the Marconi Company since 1904. That was the general call, ‘CQ,’ followed by ‘D,’ denoting distress and together meaning ‘All stations: distress,’ (See Part I of the Swingate Story). Although there are a number of meanings given for SOS, in reality it does not stand for anything. By World War I it had become the International Morse code distress signal. Unlike the CQD, which was three separate letters, SOS is always transmitted as a continuous sequence of: three dots, three dashes and three dots, not as individual letters. Following the introduction of audio radio transmitters the spoken distress phrase, ‘Mayday’ – the idea of senior radio officer Frederick Stanley Mockford (b1891) at Croydon Airfield – was introduced in 1923. Mayday was adopted by the 1927 International Radio Convention as the equivalent of the SOS and officially recognised in 1948. The SOS was the maritime radio distress signal until 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Nonetheless, it is still recognised as a standard distress signal that may be used with any signalling method.
In the early hours of 17 May, a Zeppelin approached Dover from the east and dropped a large number of incendiary bombs in fields between Swingate and Martin Mill. By then the military defence of Fortress Dover had surrounded the town with anti-aircraft stations and the Zeppelin came under heavy fire. It quickly made off hotly pursued by Swingate pilots in Bristol Scouts armed with hand held machine guns. Not long afterwards afterwards aeroplanes with synchronised machine guns came on station with the introduction of the Vickers Gunbus, discussed above. But the aeroplane that appears to have been the favourite of the Swingate tutors at that time was the Bristol Scout.
The Bristol Scout single seater was an 80 hp Gnome Lambda rotary engined biplane, produced by the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. It was a fast reconnaissance aircraft that had originally been designated for racing. It had been designed in 1913 by Frank Sowter Barnwell (1880-1938), an aeronautical engineer and the company’s chief designer, along with the Company’s Chief Test pilot, Harry Busteed. One (No 206) had been on show in 1914 at Olympia and had been looked at with interest by Trenchard at the time. Although the tutors accepted that as a tractor design, the propeller was at the front of the aeroplane and therefore did not have gear synchronisation they had tried different ways to overcome the problem. They found that that two rifles, one either side, could be aimed outwards and forwards to clear the propeller arc. Also, fitting a third gun on the upper wing – as can be seen in the picture, the pilot could fire it at the under carriage of the foes aeroplane!
That same month, on 25 July, over Passchendaele and Zillebeke on the Western Front, flying two Bristol Scout C aeroplanes, numbered 1609 and 1611 was Lanoe George Hawker (1890-1916). A gifted engineer, Hawker had left Swingate in October 1914 as a captain in the RFC’s No. 6 Squadron flying a Henri Farman biplane. During the freezing dank winter of 1914-1915, he had designed sheepskin boots to combat the risk of frostbite at high altitude that reached the upper thigh and were known as ‘fug-boots’. These became standard issue to all aerial personnel. Regarding the Bristol Scout C numbered 1611, Hawker had mounted a Lewis machine gun on the left side of the fuselage just forward of the cockpit and at about a 30° horizontal angle. Using this, on that Sunday afternoon he took on several two-seater German observation aircraft of the Fliegertruppe, managing to defeat three of them in aerial engagements. For this he was awarded the third Victoria Cross given to a pilot and the first given for actions in aerial combat against enemy with fixed-wing aircraft.
On 23 November 1916, Hawker was killed in combat flying an Airco DH 2. His adversary was Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918) better known as the ‘Red Baron,’ who was flying an Albatross D.II (see below). William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse (1887-1915) on 26 April 1915 was the first pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery. A member of No2 Squadron and flying a B.E.2 from Kortrijk, Belgium, Rhodes-Moorehouse successfully dropped a 100lb bomb on the railway line near that station. He immediately came under rifle and machine gun attack and was severely wounded. Nonetheless, he managed to fly his badly damaged plane for 35 miles, at a very low altitude and under more barrages, back to base. He died of his wounds the following day. The second airman to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was RNAS pilot Reginald Alexander John Warneford (1891-1915) for bringing down the German Army airship, LZ 37 by dropping bombs on it while he was under machine gun fire. Warneford was killed later the same day when the right-hand wings of his Morane-Saulnier Type L aeroplane collapsed.
At Brooklands, where Prince and his Bat team were working on aerial wireless communication, open hostility was developing between the Marconi personnel and the regular RFC wireless technicians. This was regardless that the latter were not working on wireless communication but on other aspects of wireless technology. For instance, bomb-dropping gear and testing magnetos that formed part of wireless installations and to determine their liability to ignite explosive mixtures of gases. Nonetheless, they saw the Marconi men as part-time soldiers that had not gone through the disciplined training they had nor had they had to go through the same stringent selection process. This came to a head in the summer of 1915 and to ease the situation, Prince’s team were moved. Their new location was the former Vickers testing airfield at Joyce Green, on the River Thames side of Dartford, Kent. Commandeered at the beginning of the War for the RFC number 6 Wing, the airfield suitability was questionable as it was covered with a profusion of drainage ditches criss-crossing the Dartford Salt Marshes. Shortly after the Bat team arrived No. 39 Home Defence Squadron detailed for anti-Zeppelin raid duties in the London area moved in. Then the No. 10 Reserve Squadron, pupil pilots in their final training sessions. The first Home Defence Squadron, No39, formed in May 1916 became the foundation of the newly formed Home Defence Wing in September that year. The Wing continued to expand such by the time of the Armistice, Home Defence had become the 6th Brigade made up of six Wings and 18 Service squadrons.
Prince’s Bat team did have a laboratory but this lacked the necessary special equipment. Some of this Prince managed to borrow from Brooklands and also non-military sources, with which he or members of his team had connections with such as the Marconi Company. There one of the Managing Directors, Samuel Flood-Page (1833-1915) was of particular help in providing highly specialised equipment but in 1915 he died. Then, according to Hugh Dowding’s biographer Vincent Orange, the necessary equipment was obtained by Dowding and Prince visiting the Marconi London office in the evening. While Dowding distracted the night storeman with tales of his aerial exploits on the Western Front, Prince relieved the Company of the apparatus he needed! The team’s first goal was to develop speech communication from the air to the ground, which was relatively easily accomplished. Next was communicating from the ground to the air and this was finally achieved in August 1915 between Prince on the ground and the former Marconi engineer, Captain John Furnival flying a Farman MF.7.
Towards the end of 1915 Prince’s Bat team produced the first practical aircraft telephony set, this being known as Mark One. It weighed 20lbs and Prince wrote to Dowding, ‘It seemed almost beyond hope to achieve really practical wireless telephony from an aeroplane, but the difficulties have been overcome, and the new set is by no means a toy, or only of scientific interest. A new and amazing power is conferred by it.’ By this time the team were quartered at Swingate, where they equipped a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.8a, an Avro 504 and a Martinsyde S.1 with their precious equipment. On 12 December No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron left for Saint-Omer and took the planes with them. Most of the ex-Marconi personnel returned with Prince to Joyce Green while a couple of team members and an officer from No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron stayed on at Swingate to teach aerial wireless communication and adapt aeroplanes.
That summer, wireless telephony had been upgraded at the former Marconi and GPO ship to shore stations, which had been taken over by the War Office at the outbreak of the War. At the same time sixteen new auxiliary wireless stations were brought into service. Most of the new sites were within existing buildings or structures and were to be used for communications with the yachts, trawlers, drifters, minesweeping service and additionally at Dover, the Dover Patrol. One such building was the former coastguard signal station on Swingate Downs whose personnel from then on, worked closely with the Castle and Harbour signal stations as well as the Dover Coastguard station at Aycliffe and the Light Vessels stationed at the Goodwin Sands. Most of these were already equipped with wireless telephony. The result was the provision of transmission and collecting information covering the Channel with direct links to both Dover and the Western Front.
By this time, the Germans had a marked superiority in the air not only in the number of aircraft but also in the number, superiority of skill and daring of their pilots. The Albatross D.II German fighter aircraft, which the ‘Red Baron’ was flying when he successfully shot down Captain Hawker (see above), was designed by Robert Thelenm (1884-1938), came on station in August 1915 as part of the Jasta 2 (Jagdstaffel Zwei) Luftstreitkräfte Squadrons. On 12 December 1915, the first all-metal aeroplane, the Junkers J 1 monoplane made its maiden flight, though failed to make it to mass production. The aeroplane was produced by Junkers Plane and Motor Works, Dessau, Germany and served as a prototype for later Junkers such as the Junkers 4 – named Junkers 1 by the German military – which with its successors was more feared by residents in Dover than the Zeppelins.
On 1 August 1915 the RFC was officially separated from the Army and the Dover
Voluntary Anti-Aircraft Corps, which had been set up by the Admiralty in November 1914, was disbanded. Under the command of local General Practitioner Dr Ian Howden (1870-1923) and supported by a Chief Executive Officer, Lieutenant-Commander William Capper (1844-1925), the Corps were in charge of the searchlights that had been erected at the Drop Redoubt, Castle Keep and Langdon Battery by the Admiralty. The Military took over these and also set up anti-aircraft gun emplacements outside of Fortress Dover that were manned by soldiers. On 9 August they were the first in England to illuminate a Zeppelin and managed to wing it. Off Dunkirk the Zeppelin was then hit by a bomb dropped by a British airman but even though badly damaged it did make it back to Brussels. Members of the RFC based in Dunkirk had followed the distressed Zeppelin and when it landed, they too attacked it and managed to destroy it.
A Zeppelin, on 10 August 1915, bombed the harbour near the western entrance killing one sailor and injuring three. Fifteen days later there was another Zeppelin attack but there were no casualties. One of the bombs dropped in a wooded area just outside Dover and exploded with great force. In a field close by was a poacher who had been catching rabbits using nets and ferrets. The story goes that the explosion so shook the poacher that he took to his heels, leaving his equipment, catch and ferrets behind. On seeing a policeman on a bicycle, he told him exactly where the bomb had dropped. The next day the police called on the poacher, thanked him for the information and handed him his poaching equipment. The poacher paled as he realised he had incriminated himself but Dover Police Chief Constable David Fox had taken ‘a sportsman like view of the matter,’ and no proceedings followed!
The Great Allied Offensive on the Western Front of 1915, began on 25 September with the Battle of Loos (25 September to 8 October), which was launched simultaneously with the main French offensive with the Second Battle of Champagne (25 September to 6 November). The French commander-in-chief Marshal Joffre, considered that the numerical superiority of his army, however temporary, would be sufficient to bring about the decisive breakthrough at Artois. The plan of attack was to be four days of continuous shelling climaxing in an apocalyptic final four hours followed by the infantry launching a massive and continuous assault. The assault included the use of Liquid Fire, introduced by the Germans on 26 February 26 1915, when it was used against the French outside Verdun. Consisting of a vertical single cylinder 4 feet high that was horizontally divided in two, with pressurised gas in the lower section and flammable oil in the upper section. The apparatus was carried on the back with the liquid delivered through a nozzle held in the hand. It was used by the French during the Great Allied Offensive.
The RFC’s main role in the Great Offensive, besides reconnaissance, was to bomb railway lines, trains etc. They were successful in damaging 16 lines, destroying 5 trains as well as a signal box and railways sheds at Valenciennes. For this Field Marshall French wrote to Trenchard in appreciation. Adding that he desired, ‘especially to thank pilots and observers for their plucky work in co-operation with the artillery, in photography and bomb attacks …Throughout these operations the RFC have gallantly maintained the splendid record they have achieved since the commencement of the campaign.’
Overall, however, very little was achieved and when the fighting finally died down due to bad weather after 14 October, the French casualties were between 100,000-120,000. Following the Battles, the Germans entrenched themselves along a line, which ran north to south and they set up defensive positions on high ground and in the ruins of villages. Trench warfare of World War I had begun.
On 23 September, Admiral Bacon, the Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover, welcomed George V who had come to see the dockyard and naval establishment. The King was also shown around both Swingate and Capel aerodromes. In a speech, he sympathised that the town was suffering from the ‘scourge of the Zeppelins’, adding that both aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns were showing the Germans that they could be dealt with. On 9 October a Zeppelin dropped bombs on the harbour and 3 sailors were injured.
On 28 October 1915, while inspecting troops in France, George V fell from his horse, which then rolled over on top of him. The King was brought back to England through Dover on the Anglia, that had been requisitioned at the outbreak of War from the London & North West Railway Company. After 10 months service she was converted into a hospital ship and from 17 November 1915 was employed carrying wounded from France to Dover flying the Geneva Convention, Red Cross flag. Across the Channel buoys had been laid marking a course specifically for hospital ships and as part of the Convention, hospital ships following this course were safe from attack. The Anglia left Boulogne on 17 November at 11.00hours carrying wounded from France, her Captain was Lionel John Manning (1858-1936). The weather was fine and clear and all was going well as the ship followed the designated course. About 12:30hours, midway across the Channel, the ship reached the change in direction (turning) buoy of the designated course.
Suddenly there was a loud explosion – the ship was holed on the port side forward of the bridge and immediately began to sink bow first. The Captain ordered the wireless operator to send a SOS signal but the wireless room had taken the full impact of the explosion. The operator was injured and the wireless was useless. Lifeboats and life rafts were launched but one of the boats sank with loss of life. The Royal Navy ships, Ure and Hazard quickly came on the scene taking patients off and three other ships, Torpedo Boat No. 4, Langton, and the Channel Queen came to help. The collier Luisatania, which was going down the Channel at the time, turned round to take off the crew after the patients were safely aboard the other ships. As the first crewmember climbed on board the Luisatania, there was another explosion and shortly after, she sank stern first. Estimates of the loss of life that day due to explosions or drowning vary, up to 164, with 25 of that number being crew. Both ships had hit mines that had been laid by the German U-boat, UC-5.
During the summer of 1915, it was recognised that the RFC contribution in combat was of equal importance to that of reconnaissance. As a result, Swingate underwent further expansion. This included training in wireless communication by members of Prince’s Bat team. Aerial combat was also introduced into the curriculum and this included a Machine Gun School under Captain, later Sir, Arthur Travers Harris (1892-1984) who in World War II was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) RAF Bomber Command during the height of the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. In a letter dated September 1915, the War Office stated that ‘the importance of a thorough knowledge of the Lewis Gun and training in firing it from an aeroplane is daily becoming more important.’ However, by November the Machine Gun School had moved to Hythe, the home of the School of Musketry since. 1853. As the Germans increased their air attacks so Britain increased the training of pilots, observers, mechanics and technicians. On 15 November 1915 the No. 12 Training Squadron was founded at Swingate and on 27 November the No. 13 Training Squadron received their colours. Most of these newly trained air teams were sent to the Western Front.
On the Western Front, the stalemate had led to changes in the British High command including, on 15 December, Field Marshal Sir John French being replaced by Sir Douglas Haig. French had been forced to resign following heavy criticism by a deputation of officers that included Major General Richard Cyril Byrne Haking (1862-1945). A new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir William Robertson (1860-1933) had been appointed on 12 December. As he had enlisted in the army as a private in 1877 and rose through the ranks, it was hoped that he would attract more recruits. Back in late 1914 when Kitchener launched his famous volunteer recruiting campaign over one million men had enlisted by January 1915. However, the appeal of that poster and others was waning so this form of recruitment was not keeping up with the ever-increasing number of casualties. Parliament were considering introducing compulsory military service but this came in for severe criticism out of fear that it would bring mutinous inclined men into the ranks.
In May 1915, the upper age for volunteers had been increased from 38 to 40 but this made little impression on recruitment. On 15 July 1915 the National Registration Act was passed that obliged every man between the ages of 15 and 65 to give their employment details. The result showed that there were 5million males of military age who were not in the forces of which only 1.6million were in protected high or scarce skill jobs. Shortly after on 11 October 1915, Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby (1865-1948), was appointed Director-General of Recruiting and 5 days later the ‘Derby Scheme’ was introduced. Men aged 18 to 40 were encouraged to enlist voluntarily (graded Class ‘A’) or agree to join up if obliged to later on (graded Class ‘B’). Instructions were clear and concise and it was repeatedly stated that single men would be called up before married men. As it was anticipated that this would bring an influx of the much-needed new recruits and the Wing system was becoming unwieldy, brigades were introduced into the RFC with a brigadier-general commanding each brigade. A Third Army was formed in July 1915, the first commander being General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936). Brigades were also introduced into the RFC with a brigadier-general commanding each brigade. Resulting from this, Trenchard, was promoted to Brigadier-General.
During 1915, Germany had been switching from Zeppelins and seaplanes to aeroplanes. All told, during WWI, Zeppelins made over 50 raids but preparation for flight required a large number of personnel and as they were easily seen they were vulnerable to attacks. The seaplanes were slowly phased out as they could only carry light bombs and were not fast enough against the new breed of Allied aeroplanes. Of the many different types of aircraft that Germany produced, the most formidable was the Fokker Eindecker fighters, which made their appearance in the autumn of 1915. The machine was fast, manoeuvrable and more sophisticated in that it was designed to perform near vertical dives. It was also fitted with interrupter gear that synchronised gun and airscrew enabling the gun to be fired at its full rate through the arc of the propeller without striking the blades.
The design came from the French type L Morane-Saulnier H monoplane that was being flown by French aviator Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros (1888-1918) when it crashed on the German side of the lines – of note the famous Paris tennis stadium that hosts the French Open was named after Garros. The wreckage was taken to Fokker Flugzeugwerke GmbH at Schwerin, Germany and developed by the owner, Dutch engineer Anton (Anthony) Herman Gerard Fokker (1890-1939). Not long after, the factory produced a similar synchronised gear system in the Eindecker fighters. The period between the late summer of 1915 and the spring of 1916 became known as the time of the fearsome Fokker Scourge.
4. 1916 – Cannon Fodder, Quagmires and an Offer of Peace
Back in February 1915 on the Eastern Front, the Allied powers of Britain, Australia, Canada, France, India and New Zealand had sought to take control of the narrow Dardanelles Strait in the southern part of East Thrace, Turkey. This was in order to weaken Turkey’s Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) and to provide a trade route to the Black Sea for Russia. The main objective was to capture Constantinople (later Istanbul) the capital of the once vast Empire that was in decline and by this time centred on Turkey. In the early 20th century the Empire had allied with Germany, a position that remained at the outbreak of World War I. On 29 October 1914 two Ottoman ships brought from Germany and manned by German crews, attacked Russian ports in the Black Sea. As a result, on 5 November 1914, the Russians entered the War on the side of the Allies. By February 1915, the Allies offensive strategy was to attack the Ottoman forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles followed by an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula. The Gallipoli Campaign, as it was generally called, was particularly advocated by Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and had lasted from 17 February 1915 to 9 January 1916. The Allies had badly underestimated the capacity of the Turkish forces and approximately 58,000 were killed. 87,000 Ottoman Turkish troops also died and at least 300,000 more from both sides were seriously wounded. Following the debacle, Churchill resigned from the government and went to command an infantry battalion in France. One of the soldiers who took part in the Gallipoli Campaign was Viscount Vere Brabazon Ponsonby Duncannon (1880-1956), Dover’s Member of Parliament (1913- 1920).
Although, fighters on the Western Front were supplementing Zeppelins and seaplanes, they were still being used by the Germans for bombing raids over the UK. At Dover on 23 January 1916 at 01.00hours, the town was subjected to its first moonlight raid carried out by a Friedrichshafen FF 33b seaplane. Eight high explosive and one incendiary bomb were dropped with the first falling on Waterloo Crescent, This was followed by one on Cambridge Terrace then Camden Crescent and as the plane travelled towards the Castle, another was dropped on the roof of the Red Lion pub in St James’ Street. This killed Harry R Sladden (1873-1916) and injured James Browning, George Gambrill and Richard Willis. Another fell on the malt house of Leney’s Phoenix Brewery on Dolphin Lane causing a fire that was soon extinguished. The gas offices in Russell Street were hit, while three children were injured in Golden Cross Cottages and an old lady in nearby Golden Cross Place by another bomb. The final bomb fell on Victoria Park – where senior personnel of Fortress Dover resided.
The following lunchtime two seaplanes dropped bombs on the air balloon sheds at Capel then approached Dover, coming under fire from the Drop Redoubt on Western Heights before dropping a bomb on the town. Altogether, one man and four soldiers were killed and 2 men, 1 woman, 3 children and 11 soldiers were injured. The estimated cost of damage was given as £1,591. The attackers were then pursued by a Swingate pilot, armed with a Winchester rifle and five rounds of ammunition. A seaplane from the Base at Mote Bulwark also took to the air, but without the required permission of the Admiralty. The seaplane pilot was armed with a pistol but the Swingate pilot mistook the seaplane as German and opened fire with his Winchester. During the fracas the two German seaplanes made off without suffering any damage.
At this time, Fortress Dover had what was believed to be ample anti-aircraft batteries as it was thought that the town was relatively safe from attack. However, although they had the guns, to save costs ammunition provided consisted of cheap percussion shells. Although these could have been effective, they did require a high degree of accuracy and therefore were only of use if the target was fixed, such as a building. Against the two moving German aircraft the gunners would only have been successful by accident hence their only significant impact, on this occasion, was on the Walmer Church tower!
The Ottoman victory in the Dardanelles, bombing raids over England plus heavy casualties on the Front were having a negative effect on moral, though Allied Command were failing to appreciate this. Kitchener believed that men would continue to rally round the flag if asked, especially as he and his colleagues were planning to launch another determined offensive on the Western Front. This was earmarked to take place on 1 July and the attack was to be concentrated on a wide front of 12½ miles in length, between Serre in the territory of Pas-de-Calais and Maricourt to the south in Hauts-de-France, on the right bank of the river Somme. To the north of Serre, a diversionary attack on the first day of the offensive was scheduled and the whole was to be launched to coincide with a French operation to the south of the Somme. It was expected that this time a well-planned onslaught would overwhelm the German positions in the hills and lead to that much needed major breakthrough.
To prepare for the offensive, in January 1916, of the 215,000 men not in protected high or scarce skill occupations, enlisted as class ‘A’ and 2,185,000 in class ‘B’ under the Derby Scheme, were called up. As they were classed as volunteers, they did not have to and many did not. On 27 January 1916 the Military Service Act was passed, which imposed Voluntary Conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41, with the exception of the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and those in protected high or scarce skill jobs. Assuming that this would bring in the much-needed men, the British Army was again restructured in February 1916 with the formation of the Fourth army commanded by General Henry Rawlinson (1864-1925). On 25 May 1916 a second Act passed extending Conscription to married men and although many men failed to respond, in the first year 1.1 million did enlist. The age limit was increased to 51 in the summer of 1918 and although the War ended later that year, Conscription was not abolished until 1920. Another Army was formed in May 1916, under the command of Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough (1870-1963), at first known as the Reserve Army, then later renamed the Fifth Army in October 1916.
With this proliferation of new recruits, measures were taken to increase the number of pilots and support personnel on the Western Front with the concept of Training Squadrons being introduced. Under this scheme new recruits were based at one airfield and fast tracked through the different training courses appertaining to flying and their abilities. Then, after 48hours leave, they were sent straight into war zones for practical experience! To pay for the influx of trainees Kitchener’s office introduced more economies, one of which was the reduction in the number of seaplane pilots and seaplanes based at Dover. When this was questioned in the House of Commons, the members were told, that there was still a large contingency of aeroplanes at Guston to defend Channel shipping against ‘U’ boat attacks.
Albeit, Canterbury MP Captain Francis Bennett Goldney (1865-1918) refuted this, telling the Commons that the previous weekend he had taken a walk to the RNAS Guston airfield and discovered it had hardly been used since the previous autumn. In fact, the farmer was ploughing it up in preparation for crops! Nonetheless, the seaplane cut backs were instigated with hardly any increase in the number of aeroplanes at Guston. At Swingate, No 20 Training Squadron arrived on 1 February 1916 and No 64 Training Squadron on 7 April. The newly trained fast tracked squadrons then left for the Western Front. On arrival, it was discovered that due to a shortage of aircraft the new pilots were to gain experience flying aircraft, – usually the BE 2c, – that mechanics of their squadron had attempted to repair. The planes had been made unairworthy in combat and therefore, according to a report by Trenchard, were a ‘flying target’ for German pilots.
Four of the No. 20 Squadron were non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and although none survived the War, two -, James Thomas Byford McCudden (1895-1918) of Gillingham, Kent and Thomas Mottershead (1892-1917) from Widnes Lancashire were to win the highest awards the country could offer. McCudden had trained as an engineer and was sent to the Front in 1914 as a mechanic with No. 3 Squadron. In 1915 he came to Swingate to train as an observer but was sent to Gosport to learn to fly before returning to Swingate to train with No. 20 Squadron. McCudden rose through the ranks to become a Major and he was one of the most highly decorated airmen in British military history. Further, having shot down a total of 57 enemy aircraft he was the seventh highest scoring ace in WWI and on 26 March 1918 was awarded the VC. However, Major McCudden was killed on 9 July 1918, when his aircraft crashed in France due to an engine fault. Both his brothers, William and John, were also pilots and they too died in the War.
Mottershead received the V.C. for saving the life of his observer. This was the only one awarded to a non-commissioned RFC officer during the First World War. On 7 January 1917 near Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium, he was on patrol in an FE 2d with observer Lt. W E Gower when he was engaged in combat by two Albatros D.III’s, with Lt Gower managing to hit one. The second Albatros was flown by German ‘ace’ Leutnant Walter Göttsch (1896-1918) who hit Mottershead’s FE 2d’s, petrol tank setting the aeroplane on fire. With only a hand-held extinguisher Lt Gower was unable to put the flames out. Although badly burned, Mottershead managed to land the aeroplane. On touching the ground the under carriage collapsed throwing Lt Gower clear but pinning Mottershead in his cockpit. He was subsequently rescued but died of his burns five days later.
At the Front, No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron, as part of the Bomber Squadron of the RFC, had moved from Saint-Omer to Bertangles, in the department of Somme part of the French region of Picardie on 24 December 1915. On 17 January 1916, with BE.2c’s along with the specially consigned BE.8a, the Avro 504 and a Martinsyde S.1 carrying the Mark 1 aircraft telephony sets, commenced bombing missions. Before the month was out, Prince and other members of the Bat team were joined by Dowding. He examined and flew the three specially equipped planes and was well satisfied. Following this, members of the media were invited to watch one undertaking reconnaissance, it was a cold, wet and very windy day.
One journalist wrote of the No. 9 Squadron pilot , ‘In his work in watching the Germans he moved across the gale, mounted in spirals, came down wind in a swooping black streak, turned, and went back to his beat. And all the time we watch him we watched the efforts of the German gunners trying to bring him down. Near him, when he was closest to the German front, a black spot would suddenly appear. It was often difficult to distinguish the airman from the smoke burst. But the spot would enlarge and the airman would change his flight. Then another ball of smoke would appear and it looked as if the airman was festooned with them … He was above us when a light flashed just beneath his machine and we heard a report just like an exploding rocket … In the meantime the British batteries were pouring shells incessantly guided by wireless talk from their comrade in the sky…’ (Times January 1916).
In February, with Prince and Dowding in attendance, the No. 9 (Wireless) Squadron pilots demonstrated the Wireless Set Mark I to a party of senior officers including Lord Kitchener, Sir Douglas Haig, General Robertson and Trenchard. They were all impressed at being able to hear speech on the ground from an aircraft twenty miles away but neither Kitchener nor Haig were happy for the apparatus to be deployed on the Western Front. Trenchard and Dowding kept their tempers and quietly encouraged Prince to return to England and to resume research, particularly in clarifying speech. By May 1916, 306 aircraft and 542 ground stations were equipped with wireless sets but these were the old-fashioned spark wireless and crystal set receivers using Morse Code. However, other changes were afoot, where at one station at Rathlyn Island on the Isle of Mull, the War Office had appointed a woman in charge!
Much to the consternation of Kitchener and the others in Allied Command, the Germans launched an offensive on 21 February and this was to last until 18 December 1916. It had the generic name of Battle of Verdun and began against the French with the Germans using their air superiority that enabled them to establish a blockade on the French air squadrons. The objective of the Germans against the French was to wear them down in order to force the British and the other Allies to take charge of more of the line. The French fought back with specialist fighter squadrons eventually regaining superiority, though much to the delight of the Germans, ten new British army divisions – all raw recruits – arrived to replace the French 10th Army stationed in Artois.
They arrived in March 1916 and replaced the French along a thirty-kilometre stretch of the Front from Loos-en-Gohelle to Ransart, south of Arras. The Front they were expected to defend extended from Ypres to the Somme. The trenches the French had left behind were shallow and in generally poor condition. To deal with the problems required Royal Engineers being seconded from other important War work. Adding to this difficulty, the Germans used the opportunity to move their positions to higher ground and to increase their numbers. This enabled them to easily fire on the British lines from the top of Vimy Ridge and move to the rear of the British using the Ridge as a cover.
Of the seconded Royal Engineers, those with specialist tunnelling skills created a network that enabled the British to seek safety from the onslaught and to move to positions where they could be pro-active. By 21 May the Germans, having realised what was happening, increased their artillery and mortar activity from Vimy Ridge in an attempt to capture the entrances to the Allies’ tunnels. In the space of four hours they bombarded a narrow section of the Allies lines with 70,000 shells – it was one of the heaviest attacks in the War. Two days later the British launched a counter attack but they were soon outgunned by German shelling and machine gun fire.
Supporting this German offensive were specialist fighter-only aviation units the Kampfeinsitzer Kommando formations – single-seat battle units abbreviated as ‘KEK’. They had been introduced in February 1916 and flew Fokker Eindeckers. The following month, German master aerial tactician, Oswald Boelcke (1891 – October 1916) had introduced the notion of ‘forward observers’ Fokker Eindecker aircraft close to the Front lines to spot Allied aircraft approaching. Then KEK pilots attacked, flying the newer and superior Halberstadt D.II – a fighter biplane developed and manufactured by Halberstädter Flugzeugwerke, a pre-War British and Colonial Aeroplane Company of Filton, Bristol – German joint venture company, and having a more powerful 120 hp Mercedes D.II engine.
Aeronautic developments were also taking place in Britain and in January 1916 one such plane was sent to Swingate. It’s origins was traced back to December 1914 when Frederick Sigrist (1884-1956), works manager of Sopwith Aviation Company was involved in the design of a small two-seater biplane, given the nickname Sigrist Bus. This eventually flew in the summer of 1915 and from this prototype a larger fighter aircraft was designed by Herbert Smith (1889–1977) powered by a 110-hp Clerget engine. Like the original Sigrist Bus, the upper wings were separate but connected to the fuselage by a pair of short or half struts and a pair of longer struts, forming a ‘W’. This gave rise to its nickname, the Sopwith 1½ Strutter. Fitted with a synchronised Lewis machine gun equipped with interrupter gear it allowed the gun to fire through the propeller arc and another Lewis gun was mounted in the rear cockpit. At least one of these 2-seater fighters arrived at Swingate in January and a number went to France in May with No.70 Squadron.
In March 1916, a Zeppelin dropped a number of bombs on Whinless Down, west of Dover, and two incendiary bombs on nearby Hougham. Then, in the afternoon of Sunday 19 March seaplanes attacked Deal, Margate, Ramsgate and Dover – dropping twenty-two bombs on the town. These killed two women and a child injuring 4 men and 3 women and at the inquest, the jury recommended that the Government should investigate all the circumstances attending the town’s defence against these air raids. On 27 February 1916, about 2 nautical miles off Dover, the liner Maloja – the largest ship in the P&O fleet – sailing from Tilbury to Bombay and carrying 456 passengers and crew, was torpedoed. 155 people drowned in the cold sea and 58 bodies were landed at Dover and taken to the Market Hall, now Dover’s Museum. Most of the survivors were looked after at the Lord Warden Hotel near the Admiralty Pier. The few seaplanes still based in Dover had helped in the operation.
On 24 March the 1,353ton twin-screw cross-Channel steamer, Sussex, sailing under the French flag, left Folkestone for Dieppe with 386 passengers and a mostly French crew of 50 on board. The Sussex was torpedoed off Dieppe and vessels along with boats from the Dover Patrol went to the rescue. Many of the survivors and three bodies were landed at Dover. Every week the list of British and Allies merchant shipping sank by German ‘U’ boats was published and each week and week on week the list was getting longer.
The attack on the Sussex prompted the U.S. to threaten severing diplomatic relations with Germany and this, if put into operation, would reduce the German ability to continue maintaining the upper hand in the War. Through the American Ambassador in Berlin, James Watson Gerard junior (1867-1951), the German Imperial State Secretary of the German Foreign Office, Gottlieb von Jagow (1863- 1935) appealed to President Woodrow Wilson, saying that the British, by their blockade were acting illegally and causing the German nation to starve. With regards to the torpedoing of neutral shipping, he said that in reality those ships the German submarines had attacked were British using neutral flags in an effort to evade detection and destruction. All that Germany was doing was fighting to reopen sea passages so that the much-needed imports, on which American companies relied on to provide work for American nationals, would get through. Woodrow Wilson responded by suggesting that the ‘U’ boat attacks on British and Allied military shipping was OK but on merchant shipping, regardless of country of origin, that had to stop. He also threatened Britain with economic sanctions if the blockade against German merchant shipping did not stop.
The German government congratulated the President on being even-handed and on 4 May produced the Sussex Pledge, in which they agreed to only attack Allied shipping and also to give adequate warning before sinking merchant and passenger ships. They would also provide for the safety of passengers and crew. Many US citizens were pleased that the relationship between the two powers was becoming more friendly but complained that the President was being financially more liberal towards the Allies that to Germany. This was denied and in October 1915 Woodrow Wilson gave much publicity in permitting syndicated loans organised to help the nationals of the German homeland. The largest was syndicated through Chandler & Co of 17 Battery Place, New York, which offered the German government a loan of $25million @ ½% annual payment. Of note, by 1917 US loans to Germany stood at $27million while loans to the Allies amounted to $2.25 billion.
On 15 April 1916, No 49 Squadron was formed at Swingate and were bring trained to join the Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. The squadron was made up of recently recruited, fast-tracked pilots, observers and ground crew who were going to the Continent without anyone with experience of the Front going with them. On gaining experience at the Front, they would be then expected to work alongside No 9 Squadron as a night flying bomber squadron. Their motto was Cave Canem – beware of the dog. The teaching personnel at Swingate at this time all suffered from a variety of severely debilitating injuries sustained at the Front. A Reuters’ journalist visited Swingate and wrote an account of some of the training the fast-track students were receiving. In relation to the observers, he was allowed to watch and write about part of their final practical examination, which took place in a large hangar.
The floor was covered by an enormous raised contour map of one of the areas of the Western Front with wooden pieces representing buildings, bridges, woods etc. Around the map observers to be examined sat. High up in one corner was part of a BE.2 cut away to show inside the cockpit where there was a Marconi wireless set. Below, behind a screen were two other members of staff and a mock up battery armed with gun and an identical wireless set. To illustrate what was expected of those being examined, another member of staff was designated as an observer and he climbed up and got into the exposed cockpit. Immediately he established a wireless connection with the battery below. The Commandant, with a long wand, pointed to a target and the observer, checking his Musgrave/James style map, tapped out its location using Morse Code.
The wireless operator interpreted this and the screen was removed. Using the information the order was given to fire the gun and after two hits the correct target was knocked down. The apparatus was set up again and individually, each member of the class climbed into the cockpit, identified the Commandant’s chosen target and using the wireless transmitter, gave its location for the ground crew to knock over. All the trainees were successful in identifying the targets, although some took far longer than others to work them out. The journalist, in his report, went on to describe the training that the ground crew were receiving and this included dismantling and putting together 15 different types of aircraft engine and nine different types of aircraft of both British and foreign manufacture. Finally, he was shown a recently captured enemy plane, which the trainee engineers were examining.
At 02.15hours on 20 May there was another moonlight raid by seaplanes on Dover. They dropped fifteen bombs in rapid succession with the first landing on Dover College, where the college boys were still in residence. Bombs were dropped on Western Heights, damaging part of the Grand Shaft Barracks while the next fell on the roof of the Ordnance Inn, 120 Snargate Street. Another on the Commercial Quay followed this. Locals said that throughout this assault, the defence guns were silent and that no aircraft went up to fight off the attackers. As a consequence of the raid, a soldier was killed and a man and a woman injured. Up until earlier that year the defence of Fortress Dover had been the responsibility of the Admiralty, made up of professionals, such as the Dover Patrol and supplemented with local volunteers. In February 1916 the responsibility had passed to the War Office and home aerial defence was introduced subject to the availability of aircraft and pilots. Following the repeated air attacks on Dover, in May 1916 No 50 Squadron, made up of Swingate trainees was formed and designated to defend Dover docks and harbour installations. Their motto, From Defence to Attack.
The Squadron was at first equipped with BE 2s, but as aircraft design was changing to include the combat role of aviators the BE 12 arrived in May. This was a development of the BE design, with a synchronised Vickers gun with seasoned pilots putting them to the test on 19 May. A moonlight air raid took place on the South-East Coast that resulted in a large number of bombs being dropped, killing one man and injuring two people. Newly qualified pilots flew the BE 12’s to meet another moonlight attack on 9 July after which the seasoned pilots endorsed the newly qualified observations that the BE 12 was useless in combat!
Some modified B.E. 12b’s with a 200-hp Hispano-Suiza engine and a wing mounted Lewis gun, instead of the synchronised Vickers gun, were sent to the aerodrome. 50 Squadron soon had a chance to try out the new aircraft, for during the night of 2-3 August a Zeppelin attempted to approach Dover and was quickly driven off by their robust defence. However, at 12.25hours on 12 August two seaplanes dropped four bombs on the town, one falling on the harbour and another on Fort Burgoyne. There seven soldiers, who were on parade, were injured. Only two, aged battle-scarred BE 2s, went up to try and deal with the seaplanes, both were from Swingate and both were too slow.
During the previous week, most of No 50 Squadron had been moved to Bekesbourne. Three miles south-east of Canterbury, the airfield was about 170-feet above sea level, 1,000yards long and about 450yards wide. Although sloped at the east end, there were hangars at the west end and a windmill to the south, it was reported that good landings could be made, from any direction day or night. This just left the BE 2s at Dover even though the aerial attacks on the town and East Kent were intensifying. As the number of civilian fatalities and injured continued to rise, a deputation of Mayors led by Dover’s Mayor 1913-1919, Edwin Farley (1864-1939), attempted to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, Field Marshal French, to explain the situation and to increase the Home Defence units. But, their efforts were met with procrastination from officials until eventually they were told that the Field Marshal was not in a position to give such orders or to change the procedures.
What Mayor Farley and his colleagues had experienced had become all too common and equally applied to other aspects of the Air Services, indeed, their senior administrators were coming in for the most criticism. To try and deal with the situation, from February 1916, for two months, the joint naval and military air services technically came under the Joint War Air Committee. This was a toothless organisation that the Treasury and more importantly the senior administrators, who had come in for criticism, totally ignored! On 16 April the Joint War Air Committee was abandoned and on 15 May it was replaced with the slightly more powerful Air Board.
With its own offices and highly trained staff the Air Board was headed by Chairman, George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (1859-1925) – a former Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (1904-5). By virtue of the post, Curzon was a member of the War Committee but in rank, his post was subservient to the navy and military members of the Committee. Further, as representatives of both were heavily caught up with their overseas operations, Aeronautical Home Defence was low on their agendas. It was this that had led to the Port of Fortress Dover and the rest of East Kent, lacking adequate aeronautical protection. Aware of this, John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu (1866-1929), took it upon himself to highlight the problems of the British Air Board. In a series of articles published in the Times during 1916, he wrote that it, ‘was a Cinderella organisation when in reality it should be a Service in its own right, equal but separate from the other two.’ Seeds of change were sown.
As noted above, the British blockade of Germany was being achieved by keeping the Allied Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles, from where they attacked German merchant ships as they entered the North Sea. This was cutting off vital American supplies including grain, non-ferrous metals such as copper and zinc as well as nitrates essential as fertiliser and also for manufacturing high explosives. In an attempt to break the Grand Fleet’s strangle hold on these German imports from the US, during the day and night of 31 May-1 June 1916, the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet took on the Grand Fleet near Denmark’s Jutland peninsula.
The great naval battle off Jutland on 31 May resulted in many men in the Navy losing their lives. Amongst them were a significant number of Dover men as well Rear-Admiral Hood, former Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover. The Germans were the first to report the outcome of the Battle claiming victory as the British lost more ships and men. The British press concurred, calling it a disaster. Strategically, the British Grand Fleet quickly recovered and by the following day had reinstated the blockade. The German High Seas Fleet’s moral was badly shaken by the sheer might of the Grand Fleet and many of the German ships took quite a long time to repair. Further the blockade increased the already severe hardship to the civilian population. One of the support ships at the Battle of Jutland was the South Eastern and Chatham Railway’s cross Channel triple screw packet, Engadine launched in 1911. She had been commandeered at the outbreak of the War and fitted out to carry seaplanes. Following the Battle she took the injured that had been transferred from the battle ships back to base for hospitalisation.
Back in November 1914, resulting from a public meeting in Dover, a Volunteer Training Corps was established. This was aimed at recruiting men under the age of 19 who, at that time, were classed as too young to join the forces, and men over 38, who were considered too old at that time. Some 500 local men had joined and initially Sir William Crundall (1847-1934) commanded them though as they became more professional, they came under the command of a Colonel Smyth. The 1st Battalion of the Cinque Ports Fencibles was also formed of which two companies came from Dover. Later, they and the Volunteer Training Corps became part of the Kent Volunteer Regiment. These and other volunteer regiments were fully equipped under the 1916 Military Service Act and armed for home defence. The Act also gave rise to numerous women’s organisations such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs – founded March 1917) and the Women’s Royal Navy Reserve, the photograph shows the latter at revolver practice in 1916.
While on board the armoured cruiser Hampshire, Lord Kitchener was killed on 5 July 1916, when the ship struck a mine off Orkney on its way to Russia. The next day David Lloyd George, who held the post of Chancellor, was appointed the Secretary of State for War. As Chancellor, he had told the House of Commons in May that the excess of imports over exports the previous year had amounted to £800m. What he did not say was that for political reasons in the U.S., although money was being loaned to Britain, it was generally seen as expedient to imply that the lending was minimal. In Britain there was a perception that the country was financial far better off than it really was and following Kitchener’s death, this attitude was actively encouraged.
This applied to the Great Allied offensive that was to begin on 1 July. It was the first major deployment of the new compulsory conscripted men and the attacks were to be on a 12½ miles long Front between Serre in the Pas-de-Calais and the Maricourt district to the south, on the right bank of the river Somme. It was preceded, during the week before, by heavy shelling and the exploding of several gigantic land mines. It was planned that these would clear the area of German troops and although air reconnaissance appeared to confirm this, due to the continual heavy rain, the airmen said that it was equally possible that the Germans were seeking shelter in their heavily fortified concrete bunkers. The Generals decided that the heavy bombardment had cleared the area of the majority of Germans.
In drizzle on Saturday 1 July 1916 at 07.30 hours the British Army with soldiers from Australia, Canada and India left the trenches on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. They had been assured that all would be quiet and danger would be minimal. With a slow, determined and regular pace they crossed the rain soaked quagmire of no-man’s land only to be mowed down by German gunfire followed by heavy shelling. The Germans also shelled the assembly trenches where thousands of soldiers were waiting for their turn to go over the top. By that evening 19,240 British and Allied men were dead, 35,000 were wounded and nearly 3,000 were captured or missing. These losses were the heaviest sustained in a single day in British military history.
On that day, due to the Allies having 421 aeroplanes against the German 104 machines, they gained and maintained air superiority for much of the day. Therefore, it was still believed that with a bit of encouragement the Germans would retreat and therefore only the more positive aspects of what had happened was reported in the British press. Typically, it was said that Captain Arthur George Kenchington (1890-1966) of B Company, 7th Buffs – the East Kent Regiment that had recruited throughout the Dover and Folkestone Districts, that his men were caught by machine gun fire while in a chalk dump in no-man’s land west of Montauban at about 08.15hours. Many were lying dead and injured, ‘then there was silence but the snipers continued to shoot, there was a concerted rush on the part of the men remaining who carried the dump and the snipers were bayoneted.’
By 19 July the Germans showed no sign of retreating so it was agreed to an infantry attack at Fromelles in the Nord department in northern France. This was to start with
heavy bombardment prior to the infantry attack. Two novice infantry divisions were fielded, the British 61st – that had spent their time thus far removing poison gas canisters from no-man’s land – and the Australian 5th, who had just arrived from halfway round the world. Although they lacked experience, the British XI Corps and RFC 10 Squadron supported them, all being under the command of Major General Haking. But the preparations had been hurried and it was still assumed that the German defence was poor. The muddy morass made movement difficult and the Allies were on open ground while the Germans were in fortified concrete bunkers, bristling with machine gun sites and behind barbed wire on slightly higher ground. Against this onslaught the infantry didn’t stand a chance – in a period of twenty-four hours the Australians lost 5,533 men and the British 1,400 with nothing to show for it.
It was one of the greatest tragedies suffered by the Australian nation during the 20th century and it was said that Corporal Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry was manning one of the machine guns. As for Major General Haking, who was already unpopular over his perceived betrayal of the highly respected former Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal French. French had been removed from the Front for publicly pointing out that insufficient quantity and quality of the shells handicapped the British. Following Fromelles, Haking was blamed, by the men who survived, for using those who were killed or maimed as cannon fodder and was blocked from further promotion. After the attack on the Somme in July 1916, as many as nine ships arrived at Dover every day, bringing back the wounded to moor alongside Admiralty Pier. As they were unloaded they were tended by local women, many of them wives of serving men. From Marine Station, 13 ambulance trains took the wounded to hospitals throughout the country – some making two or three journeys a day. The dead were taken to the Dover mortuary, then in Tower Street in the nearby Pier District.
Bats and Marconi qualified wireless operators were involved in the Somme offensive manning mobile wireless stations. The new wireless operators underwent the full Marconi training but only received basic army training and were classed in the ranks. They arrived while the Battle of the Somme was raging and were mainly attached to heavy artillery units to operate mobile wireless stations. Both the Bats and the established Marconi operators said, the new recruits should at least spend some time with them, but the senior personnel were too caught up with other concerns to listen. In consequence the young men were left to their own devices to find the best place to set up the equipment and get good signals. The Bats – No 9 Squadron (Wireless), who were all pilots were assigned to the XIII Corps in reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions. In charge of XIII Corps was Lieutenant-General Congreve, who had described the Christmas 1914 truce.
The Bats undertook low flying and communicated their observations to the Marconi trained wireless operators on the ground. Together they enabled the ground forces to successfully attack artillery batteries, field guns, trenches, transport, and hostile aerodromes. So impressed was Allied Command that by the end of the summer, former marine wireless officers and Belgian paratroops were dropped by parachute behind German lines equipped with Marconi sets to transmit intelligence reports. As for the newly trained operators with the heavy artillery, theirs was a sad tale. Having to operate in makeshift dugouts and to constantly repair the fragile wireless antennas the casualty rates were disproportionately high compared to the other soldiers in their batteries. This was eventually brought to the attention of the Allied Command and the unit commanders were told, in no uncertain terms, that ‘it is your duty to keep in close touch with the wireless operators attached to your command…’
During 1916, photographic techniques increased exponentially and by autumn the Allies had the capability to photograph the entire Front on a daily basis – weather permitting. Stereoscopic photography – a technique for creating or enhancing the illusion of depth enabling highly accurate maps of the Front to be drawn up was undertaken. From the photographs taken, enlargements were made that proved invaluable to the ground forces. Further, these innovations helped fighter aircraft and bombers accomplish strategic missions and facilitate what became known as ‘trench strafing’. This was when fighter aircraft attacked German trench lines, machine-gun posts and batteries etc. from near ground level with machine guns. Also dropping Cooper 20lb fragmentation bombs. Therefore aeroplanes were both attacking the enemy and defending the land forces in co-ordination with each other.
At the Battle of Fleurs-Courcelette on 15 September, part of the Battle of the Somme, the British introduced a new weapon onto the battlefield – Mark 1 tanks. Supported by No.7 and No.34 Squadrons, forty-nine arrived and thirty-two were used in the Battle though only nine made it across no-man’s land. Nonetheless, those nine did show the machine’s potential that eventually helped to change the course of the War. The overall Battle of the Somme lasted until 18 November. The official number of Allies dead, missing or wounded was 419,654 with 72,000 having no known grave. The Royal Flying Corps lost 800 aircraft and 252 aircrew were killed.
At Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Marconi Company were carrying out valve transmitter tests between an aircraft and Royal Navy units. Back in the UK at the Bats base, Captain Peter Pendleton Eckersley (1892-1963), who in 1923 was appointed Chief Engineer of the infant British Broadcasting Company, had joined team. They were undertaking research on how wireless telegraphy could be used to help home-defence aircraft during German bombing raids. It was hoped to provide warnings of pending attacks. In May 1916 a Marconi half-kilowatt ground transmitter was set up at Swingate and other airfields in raid-threatened areas. Initially, pilots reported that signals sent could be deciphered up to ten miles away. Six months later, following more work and experimentation, clear signals could be transmitted from Swingate and heard at Dunkirk over 40miles away.
Working on an early warning system at Binbury Castle near Maidstone, Kent, in July 1915, was Professor Thomas Mather (bc1856-1937). He had cut a 16-foot sound mirror into a chalk face and claimed that it could detect aircraft 20 miles away. The mirror was hemispherical and the sound collector was mounted on a pivot at the focal point. This was a trumpet shaped cone and the listener, who wore a stethoscope like instrument, moved the sound collector across the face of the mirror listening with the instrument until he found the point where the sound was loudest. Bearings to the target could then be read from vertical and horizontal scales on the collector. From 1916 Sound Mirrors were constructed along the south and east coasts and in the Thames estuary. The one at Abbots Cliff can still be seen. In 1928 a new breed of Sound Mirror was developed by Dr William Sansome Tucker (1877-1955). One was built at Fan Bay just below Swingate and that too can still be seen.
Introduced at airfields such as Swingate in 1916 was a method of detecting bearings of radio transmissions, already being used on ships. Two radio-receiving aerials, both capable of being rotated, were erected at fixed points suitably far apart to pick up approaching aircraft radio emissions. This way they were able to identify the direction from which the strongest signals were coming by triangulation. The point at which the two ‘position lines’ converged told the wireless operator the position of the aircraft. Also in 1916 Alexander Watson-Watt, (1892-1973) joined the Meteorological Office and was given the job of finding a method of detecting thunderstorms as they were a hazard to aircraft. His research eventually led to the Radio Detection and Ranging technique better known as RADAR (See Swingate Part 3). In essence, RADAR is a form of detection by transmitting microwaves – very short wavelength radio signals – and picking up their reflections or echoes from solid objects they bounce off. The idea of using the system for military purposes had been put forward to the German High Command by Christian Hülsmeyer (Huelsmeyer) (1881-1957) in 1904, but they failed to see it having any practical purpose. Of interest, RADAR superseded the Sound Mirrors and on abandoning the Sound Mirror project, Tucker gave Watson-Watts and his team their data.
From early in the War, one of the main tasks facing the Dover Patrol and the Commander-in-Chief of Fortress Dover, was trying to stop the U-boats leaving from German occupied ports on the European mainland then passing down the Channel and into the Atlantic Ocean/Irish Sea. There they attacked the Allies merchant vessels. In 1916 Admiral Bacon was Commander-in-Chief and he had ordered a Barrage – a huge net, with minefields on either side – to be strung across the Channel suspended from fishing boats and buoys. He was convinced that it was working though towards the end of 1916 it was estimated that around 300,000 tons of shipping was being destroyed monthly in the North Atlantic. Further, captured secret German documents revealed that the U-boats were passing down the Channel at night and on the surface, travelling over the Barrage and minefields.
The local Coastguards were actively involved in co-ordinating transmission, collection and collation of the wireless coverage of activities and the visual movement of U-boats as they surfaced in the Channel. With regards to the latter they worked closely with local fishermen. All of this information, the Coastguards passed on to the Dover Patrol as well as military, naval and Western Front personnel. To help the Coastguards observe untoward movements in the Channel, youngsters from the Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts, were recruited and every evening, armed with binoculars and riding bicycles these boys patrolled the cliff tops. Following their reported sightings, Dover Patrol, backed by aeroplanes, including the two teams that were part of No 50 Squadron based at Swingate and flying B.E.12s, went to deal with the unwelcome vessel(s). In retaliation the air raids on Dover by the German airforce increased and it was obvious that besides the harbour, the airfields in the area had become targets. Typically, on 22 September a seaplane dropped bombs close to Swingate airfield, but although there were no casualties, aircraft were damaged.
Swingate airfield at this time was coming in for national criticism. Already locally nicknamed Swingate Cemetery due to the frequent trainee pilot fatalities there, Member of Parliament, Noel Pemberton Billing (1881-1948) was particular scathing. An aviator, Pemberton Billing supported air power and the creation of a separate air force, unattached to either the British Army or the Royal Navy. However, he told the House of Commons, the media and anyone else whom he thought mattered, that Swingate aerodrome was too dangerous for the training of young pilots. ‘On arrival,’ he said, ‘they were put into fast war flight machines having previously flown nothing more than a box-kite.’ Pemberton Billing then cited a letter that he had received at the beginning of the year from Flight Lieutenant Harold Rosher (1893-1916), of No 1 Squadron based at Guston and an experienced Royal Naval Air Service pilot. Flt Lt Rosher had written that Swingate ‘Is not only a war flight base but a training school for pilots. It is the very devil of a place to fly in. The aerodrome is situated on the top of the cliffs and on two sides we have a beastly drop. If one’s engine fails on getting off the best one can do is hope and pray that when the bump comes it will not be too big. I was nearly caught this way today.’ Flight Lieutenant Rosher had been killed on 27 February 1916 and is buried in Charlton Cemetery, Dover.
The Royal Aircraft Factory and the planes that it produced also came in for criticism by Pemberton Billing, particularly the B.E 2 of which around 3,500 had been produced by the time of the ‘Fokker Scourge’. Although they were proving to be inadequate to meet the demands placed on these fragile aeroplanes, they remained on the Front Line until suitable replacements were designed, tested, produced and brought into service, such as the Nieuport 11, the Airco DH 2 and the FE 2b. On being returned to the UK, the B.E 2 were than used as trainer aircraft – the box-kite Pemberton Billing was referring to in his House of Commons speech. The fast fighter planes had proved equal in taking on the German ‘Fokker Scourge’ and those at Swingate had been returned for trainee mechanics to repair. The trainee pilots towards the end of their courses flew them.
The Airco DH.2 was a single-seat biplane ‘pusher’ with synchronisation gears and built by Aircraft Manufacturing Company Limited whose chief designer was Geoffrey de Havilland. This aeroplane was particularly equated with Squadron 24. Back in 1915, when the Squadron was first formed, some members were still teenagers many having started their training at Swingate before going to Hounslow to join the Squadron. In 1916 the experienced Squadron 24 did not find the DH.2 suitable as a fighter but they did recognise its worth in undertaking low-level flying attacks.
The French company that made the Nieuport 11 had originally been formed as Nieuport-Duplex in 1902 for the manufacture of engine components. In 1910 they produced the first Nieuport 11, which proved so successful that the company switched to producing aircraft. The RNAS particularly favoured the Nieuport 10, designed by Gustave Delage (1883-1946) with a lower wing narrower in chord than its upper wing. The RFC preferred the Nieuport 11, similar but smaller than the Nieuport 10 and the more powerful Nieuport 12, both used for fighter training at Swingate.
The French brothers Richard (1873-1940), Henri (1874-1958), and Maurice Farman (1877-1964) designed the Royal Aircraft Factory FE 2b – Farman Experiment 2b, pusher biplane. Powered by a 120hp William Beardmore (1856-1936) engine it was fitted with two Lewis guns and could carry an external bomb load. One of the Lewis guns had a high telescopic mounting in front of the pilot’s cockpit, to enable the pilot to fire forward over the observer. However, on the Front, the observers, without any form of safety harness, would often climb onto the rim of their cockpits to the gun and fire backwards over the top wing. Whether this was endorsed at Swingate flying school is not known!
What was known, was that when they were fitted with CW transmitters the FE 2b proved its worth for night-time bombing. The CW stood for an electromagnetic wave of constant amplitude and frequency that was achieved by the use of a vacuum tube electronic oscillator. American Edwin Armstrong (1890-1954) and Viennese Alexander Meissner (1883-1958) had invented this just prior to WWI. By the means of CW transmitters, which had a range of about 75miles, the airmen were also able to take on night-time reconnaissance, reporting lighted enemy aerodromes and other suitable targets.
Pemberton Billing’s scathing attack on the Swingate airfield was noted by politicians, newspapers and particularly grieving relatives of the young men who had lost lives there. The centre ceased training novice pilots and instead focused on training Squadrons that already had experience on the Western Front. The pilots and observers undertook training in low-level flying in order to attack front line enemy troops using Airco DH.2s and based on instructions developed by Robert Smith-Barry. He was one of the aviators in Number 5 (Army Co-operation) Squadron that left Swingate for the Front in August 1914. Swingate also trained seasoned injured airmen to teach at other Training Depot Stations (TDS). Another area of learning was in conjunction with the Marine Operational Pilots School and anti-submarine and convoy protection work. This included practical sessions participating in forays over the Channel in conjunction with the Home Defence Flight as well as the Seaplane and Guston based RNAS pilots as part of the Dover Patrol.
Following these intense training sessions, the seasoned airmen returned to the Western Front, though the average life expectancy of RFC airman there was approximately 93 flying hours. Typical was Serjeant Cecil Percy John Bromley (1896-1916) of 85 High Street, Dover, who was a pilot in the 7th Squadron of the RFC and was killed on 2 November 1916 at Arras. Due to this high fatality rate, making up a full Squadron of suitably experienced pilots with highly specialised training was proving increasingly difficult as it was in finding spare suitably experienced airmen to provide such training. An assessment, instigated by Trenchard, of pilot fatalities showed that besides being shot down – which accounted for the majority of deaths, other fatal factors included engine failure, thunderstorms and poor visibility. By the end of 1916, except for the Home Defence Flight still stationed at Swingate, the airfield covering just less than 220acres was redundant. In the final three months of 1916 it was estimated that there had been 350,000 British casualties on the Western Front and that the War was costing the country £5.7million a day.
On Tuesday 12 December 1916 an official ‘Note’ was handed to Gerard, the American Ambassador, from Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921) the Chancellor of the German Empire (1909-1921). The detailed Note was addressed to Joseph Clark Grew (1880-1965), chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Berlin. In essence it said that ‘Germany and her Allies, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire -Turkey and Bulgaria, have given proof of their indestructible strength in winning considerable successes at war … It was for the defence of their existence and freedom of their national development that the four Central powers were constrained to take up arms … but animated by the desire to stem the flow of blood and to bring the horrors of war to an end, the four allied Powers propose to enter even now into peace negotiations…’
The German Peace Proposal finished by asking for US President, Woodrow Wilson’s mediation to bring about peace. The President, had recently narrowly won the US presidential election with a 4,000 vote margin in California having used the slogan ‘the man who kept us out of the war.’ He was keen to organise a meeting between the different powers but did express concern over the German proclamation’s lack of terms.
In Britain, after months of intrigue and backstabbing, Herbert Asquith, seen as a Dove and supported by, amongst others, Dover’s MP Viscount Vere Brabazon Ponsonby Duncannon, resigned as Prime Minister on 5 December. On the evening of 7 December he was replaced by the Hawk, David Lloyd George. On hearing from President Woodrow Wilson of the German offer, Lloyd George responded by saying that it was less of a peace offer and more of a war manoeuvre. Adding that ‘restitution, reparation and a guarantee against repetition,’ was acceptable but if not then it was all out war against Germany. The rest of the Allies issued similar statements.
It was agreed that the proposed all out war for 1917 was to centre on the combined Allies spring offensive. This had been agreed at the third Chantilly Conference of November 1916, which Lloyd George had attended. The first such conference took place on 7 July 1915, when the Allies – representatives of France, Britain, Russia, Serbia and Italy – had met to discuss strategy. This was at the Grand Quartier Général (GQG), Chantilly, France giving the place name Chantilly to that and the two subsequent conferences. The second Chantilly Conference had taken place between 8-12 December 1915 with a subsequent meeting on 12-13 March 1916. The third Conference took place on 15-16 November 1916 but unlike the two previous Conferences, political leaders, including Lloyd George attended. The political leaders had actually met and discussed the situation in Paris before the combined final meeting in Chantilly. At that final meeting Haig asked for 20 additional air squadrons to be sent to France for the Spring Offensive. In December the Army Council approved the expansion of the Royal Flying Corps to 106 Frontline squadrons.
At this meeting even though a spring offensive on the Western Front was agreed, the French commander-in-chief, Marshal Joffre, wanted it to start in February. This was in order to prevent Germany pre-empting the Allies as had happened in 1916 but it was generally agreed that a February 1917 offensive would not be achievable. Shortly afterwards Joffre, who had lost credibility with his political bosses over the Somme debacle, was moved away from the Front line. His replacement as the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army was Robert Georges Nivelle (1856-1924), who with General Haig, drew up a plan for a combined action to breach the German line. The Allies, except for France, were to create a diversion that was to centre on the town of Arras and the taking of Vimy Ridge, both situated in the British zone. When the Germans were suitably engaged, the French large-scale attack would, Nivelle reasoned, result in the much needed breakthrough at Chemin des Dames Ridge in the region of Aisne, northern France.
1917 – On the Offensive & Americans come to Swingate
Meanwhile, attacks on neutral shipping continued. Typically from the beginning of the War to the end of 1916 the Germans had sunk 242 Norwegian ships, with a combine tonnage of 325,415 tons – and Norway was a designated neutral country. In the Channel, regardless of the efforts of the Dover Patrol, supported by the Dover based RNAS and Swingate RFC, both Royal Navy and merchant ships were succumbing to torpedo attacks from German destroyers and U-boats. During the nights of January and February 1917 these destroyers and submarines had also shelled Dover, Southwold, Broadstairs, Margate, Ramsgate and Dunkirk. Following the attacks, the vessels returned to their bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend. Because of these attacks on merchant shipping, food shortages were increasing and on 2 February 1917 the Minister of Food Control (1916-1921) Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, Lord Devonport (1856-1934), asked for voluntary restriction of food consumption to avoid compulsory rationing.
Even though there was a voluntary restriction on food consumption, by the early months of 1917 there was a shortage of food and what was available was very expensive. Food supplies were allotted to towns according to the size of their populations less those serving in the armed forces, as shown by the National Registration Returns (census). In Dover the crews of Royal Navy ships, trawlers and drifter patrol boats were not counted in the town’s census returns but most of their food supplies came from the town’s civilian supply. To compound this, Messrs R Dickeson & Co’s wholesale establishment of Market Street, which for years had been the main supplier of East Kent’s local provisions, had been taken over by the Navy and Army Canteen Board. The only other local supplier was the fledgling Dover and District Co-operative Society and they were finding it next to impossible to get fresh food. As Dover and the surrounding villages were well represented in the armed forces the resultant labour shortages meant that women were filling most posts and that included vegetable farming.
The irony was that Alexander William Prince (1870-1933) had been appointed Chairman of Messrs R Dickeson & Co back in 1909. Besides supplying Dover and south east Kent with wholesale provisions, the firm was a major supplier to the Army at the outbreak of World War I. Prince then played an active role in reforming naval and military procurement and was also the driving force in the setting up of the Expeditionary Force Canteens for which he was knighted in 1916. On 1 January 1917, the Army Canteen Committee was created and this absorbed Messrs R Dickeson & Co, which was why Dover and the surrounding district were left without a wholesale supplier. By this time shortages were a national problem and the Dover Production Committee had increased the amount of allotment ground in the autumn of 1916. By Easter 1917 women, old folk and children were starting to harvest what was to be the largest potato crop produced in Dover up to that time! The Dover Food Control Committee had also been set up and although the national rationing of sugar had not been introduced, they rationed the towns supply with the introduction of sugar cards. They also succeeded in ensuring, albeit at a higher price, adequate suppies of milk to Dover residents.
On 1 February that year, having discussed the response of Britain’s and the Allies to their peace proposal, the German Reichstag had agreed that from 1 February 1917 ‘to adopt unrestricted submarine warfare against all commerce, whether belligerent or neutral, that should seek to approach Great Britain or Ireland, the Atlantic coasts of Europe, or harbours in the eastern Mediterranean, and to conduct those operations without regard to the established restrictions of international practice, and without regard to any considerations of humanity even which might interfere with their practice.’ (President Woodrow Wilson paraphrasing the communiqué from Germany to the joint Session of Congress on 26 February 1917).
The President had told Congress that on 3 February, two American vessels had been sunk by German submarines, the 3,143 ton Housatonic 20 miles south of Bishop’s Light was carrying food stuffs destined for London. Also the 1,300 ton Lymen M Law carrying lemon box staves to Palermo, Italy had been captured and sunk 25 miles from land near Cagliari, Sardinia. Adding that such atrocities ‘disclosed a ruthlessness of method that deserves grave condemnation.’ He went on to say that he did not wish to involve the American armed forces in any action that might be taken. Instead, he asked Congress ‘to authorise the supply of US merchant ships with defensive arms … and to employ any other instrumentality’s or methods that may be necessary and adequate to protect our ships…’ Henry De La Warr Flood (1865-1921), the Chairman of the American Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that he would immediately introduce a Bill granting President Woodrow Wilson the jurisdiction to arm ships and all other authority he needed.
The offensive that had been planned in December by Nivelle and Haig, was to start with the Battle of Arras (9 April-15 May 1917). In preparation and to try and avoid arousing the suspicions of the Germans through a large number of troops being deployed in one area, New Zealand engineers created a vast network of underground tunnels. Through these the troops could pass and come up directly in front of the German Front line without, it was planned, them knowing. Nor would the troops have to face the deadly machine gun fire of no man’s land. The total length of the tunnels was approximately 12miles. These tunnels were equipped with kitchens, water supplies, latrines, electricity and a hospital capable of treating up to 700 wounded men. The hospital was also equipped with an operating theatre and a mortuary. The tunnels were divided into galleries each named by the men of the division housed there, usually after the majority’s hometown.
Across the Channel, at about this time, aerial attacks on Dover increased. On 17 March 1917 a Zeppelin came towards the town from the direction of Canterbury and dropped a bomb, reputed to have weighed 600lbs, on Whinless Down in a corner of Long Wood, Elms Vale. This was the largest bomb dropped in the district during the War. On the same day an aeroplane dropped several bombs on Swingate and the nearby Langdon Battery as well as the Camber at Eastern Dockyard. Following the raid, the German press falsely claimed that Swingate aerodrome had been destroyed.
Prior to the main offensive, around Arras RFC squadrons assiduously photographed the whole area and ground raids were carried out to test the German defences, identifying strengths and weaknesses. From these models were constructed, similar to the one the Reuters’s reporter had seen at Swingate, and these were used by officers and company leaders to familiarise themselves with the terrain and location of structures such as buildings. Full size sectors of the German lines were also constructed in order that the men could train in conditions similar to the ones they were going to encounter during the attacks. In mid March intensive bombardment on targets identified by the RFC and ground raids were started. At the same time tanks were brought in and other heavy armaments.
While preparations were taking place, Trenchard had written to Haig saying that the RFC was not ready to support the proposed offensive, adding that ‘Our fighting machines will almost certainly be inferior in number and quite certainly in performance to those of the enemy.’ In December, at the Chantilly Conference, Trenchard had made it clear to Lloyd George and Haig that the British new type of fighting machines, the Bristol Fighter Type 14 F.2, the S.E.5 (both described below) and the Sopwith Camel would not be ready. It was not until October 1917 that the superior Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane fighter aircraft was introduced on the Western Front. The aeroplane was powered by a single rotary engine and armed with twin synchronised machine guns. For experienced pilots the aeroplane proved to be highly manoeuvrable and from October 1917 to the end of the War, Camel pilots were credited with the shooting down of 1,294 enemy aircraft, more than any other Allied fighter of the conflict.
Reconnaissance had been increased in preparation for the offensive. No. 54 Squadron, a day fighter squadron formed at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham and equipped with Sopwith Pups took photographs. On 25 February 1917 they returned to base with photographs that showed German troops withdrawing in stages to a new line from Lille to Metz. This was confirmed from the interrogation of prisoners and captured documents and was of concern. There was also evidence that a number of new airfields had been laid and aeroplanes could be seen. In Germany, with the success of the KEK and the Fokker Scourge, Oswald Boelcke had started to organise the manning, equipment and training of 37 new squadrons that were eventually to make up the Jagdstaffeln – each referred to as Jasta plus the number of the squadron. Following Boelcke death in an air accident flying an Albatros DI fighter the previous October, his groundwork ensured that the Jasta was establishing air superiority. The aeroplanes in the photographs belonged to Jasta Squadrons.
The Battle of Arras was to be the diversionary offensive. The British main attack was on the German stronghold established on the 146-foot high Vimy Ridge. Because of its strategic importance it was not only heavily fortified and protected by several lines of trenches and concrete shelters, there were also large underground facilities that housed men and artillery. There had been previous attempts to capture Vimy Ridge, but each had failed, this time the task was to be undertaken by Canadians supported by the RFC and Belgian air services. While these operations were taking place, the French would be fighting to make a breakthrough at Chemin des Dames Ridge about 68miles north east of Paris. Of note, at the beginning of the War and the months that followed about 800 Canadians came over to Britain and joined both the RFC and the RNAS. This prompted Canada to set up their own training centre and since that time nearly 4,000 cadets had been commissioned into the Canadian Expeditionary Force. They were subsequently deployed as part of the RFC.
On the evening of 8 April 30,000 Canadian soldiers began to make their way towards Vimy Ridge supported by the Canadian airmen and the next morning, in blizzard conditions, the British left the tunnels at Arras. The Canadians launched their assault and within an hour had taken parts of the first two lines. By the middle of the afternoon the Canadians had started to take control of the Ridge and by 12 April had taken full control. Throughout the offensive the Jasta Squadrons kept up continuing air attacks and the Allies were continually thwarted due to the inferiority of their aeroplanes. Nonetheless, it was an outright victory but at a cost that would have been lessened if the Allies aeroplanes could have at least matched those of the Germans. The Canadians suffered 10,602 casualties including 3,598 killed. The British, meanwhile, had advance about 3 miles in two days taking eight villages and after Vimy Ridge was secured with continual intense fighting they forced the Germans to fall back several miles. Then with the arrival of reinforcements the Germans launched a successful counter attack. Nonetheless, the British did take about 20,000 prisoners and a large quantity of munitions. They also managed to push back the Front by about 6 miles.
1.2million Frenchmen were involved in the Second Battle of the Aisne (16 April- mid-May 1917), their offensive at Chemin des Dames Ridge. The Germans were based in the warren of tunnels and caves that had been excavated for stone over the centuries. Not only did they escape bombardment but also they were able to inflict heavy machine-gun fire on the French assailants. Although the French succeeded in advancing the Front line by about 4miles and taking about 29,000 prisoners, approximately 20% of the French Army were killed or were injured and they had failed to beat the Germans. Within days a mutiny started and quickly gathered pace. In an effort to quell the uprising, in May Philippe Pétain (1856-1951) replaced Nivelle as commander-in-chief and 3,400 mutineers were arrested. At the subsequent court marshals 554 were sentenced to death for mutiny but following a public outcry and the general revolutionary mood of the country, over 90% of the sentences were commuted.
During the combined Allies offensive, Jasta Squadrons had focused their assault on the reconnaissance and bombing squadrons rather than attacking ground operations. In the first week of April, the RFC lost 75 aeroplanes in defensive confrontations and by the end of the month the British air services had lost 150 aeroplanes and 316 aircrew. The French and Belgian air services lost an additional 200 aircraft. That month is still remembered as ‘The Bloody April‘. Then in May, four German Jagdstaffeln were combined to form Jagdgeschwader 1 under the command of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. His first act was to bring together many of Germany’s finest fighter pilots in order to try and force the Allies to concentrate their squadrons opposite whichever sector the Jagdgeschwader chose to occupy.
It was about this time that the Trenchard promised, Bristol F Type 14 F2B biplanes started to arrive. They were a two-seater fighter and reconnaissance aircraft that were particularly agile in dogfights. The aeroplane was developed by Bristol Aeroplane Company’s Frank Barnwell and was often called the ‘Brisfit‘ or ‘Biff’. Developed to replace the B.E.2c’s with self-defence capabilities it was initially fitted with the newly available 190 hp Rolls-Royce Falcon I inline engine. It featured a fully covered lower wing centre-section and downward sloped longerons in front of the cockpit to improve the pilot’s view when landing. The fuselage was supported mid-way between the wings and the pilot was seated forward while the observer was equipped with a single flexible .303 inch Lewis Gun on a Scarff ring and an Aldis optical sight over the rear cockpit. A forward-firing .303 inch Vickers machine gun was also mounted on the fuselage centreline.
The prototype Bristol Type 12 F.2A (C3303) was first flown on 9 September 1916 at Filton, Bristol. This was followed by prototype Bristol Type 12 F.2B (C823) on 25 October fitted with a Hispano-Suiza power unit. 50 of the Type A were produced before switching to the Type B, that became the definitive Bristol Fighter. Initially they were fitted with a Falcon 1 then Falcon II but most had the 275 hp Rolls-Royce Falcon III engine allowing a top speed of about 123 mph, making it three minutes faster in a climb to 10,000 feet. Some 5,300 Bristol F.2B were built in Britain and proved to be one of the most important and successful British designs to serve during World War I.
Following President Woodrow Wilson’s decision of 26 February, Germany and the other Central Powers continued attacking merchant shipping from Allied and neutral countries including the US. On 16 March the 2,833ton American steamer Algonoquin bound for London from New York carrying foodstuff, was sunk without warning 65 miles west of Bishops Rock, off the Scilly Islands. The submarine emerged from the depths and fired shots using two guns, four of which hit the Algonoquin. The shooting did not stop until all the crew was on the boats and clear of the ship. The submarine then sent out a small boat and members boarded the Algonoquin and hauled down the American flag. About five minutes after they had left the ship there was a huge explosion and the Algonoquin sank. The Algonoquin was not armed and it took 27 hours before the crews’ boat reached land and safety. In Washington it was stated that that the incident would not change policy but unofficially it was said that a series of such outrages would probably compel Congress to declare war.
The sinking of the US merchant ship Algonoquin on 16 March was followed by the 4,115ton Vigilancia, being torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-70, 145 miles west of Bishops Rock and 15 lives were lost. The following day the 5,252 ton City of Memphis was sunk with gunfire by German submarine 35 miles south of Fastnet Rock. And two days later on 18 March, the 5,225 ton Illinois, a tanker was sunk by a German submarine in the English Channel, 20 miles north of Alderney in the Channel Islands. On 20 March the previously torpedoed 789 ton schooner Fhineas W. Sprague was grounded and lost near Carbouerns, Spain and the next day the 4,489ton tanker Healdton was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine 25 miles north of Terschelling, Holland with 20 lives lost. On 1 April the 3,727ton Aztec was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off Ushant, Brittany, at the south-western end of the English Channel, with the loss of 28 lives. 4 April saw the 1,553-ton schooner Marguerite sunk by German submarine U-35 in the Mediterranean, 35 miles southwest of Sardinia. On the same day near Porto Maurizio, Italy, the 7,924ton Missourian, was shelled and sunk by German submarine U-52.
The attacks on the American ships was compounded by an apparent intercepted telegram from Arthur Zimmerman (1864-1940) the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1916-1917) to the German ambassador to Mexico. The telegram, called the Zimmerman Note by newspapers, was published on 3 March 1917 and proposed that the Mexican president Venustiano Carranza, (1859–1920) would ally with Germany in the event of the United States entering the war against Germany. In return, Germany promised to help Mexico recover the territory it had lost to the US in 1848 namely: California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, about a quarter of Colorado along with a small section of Wyoming. The Zimmerman Note together with the attack on US merchant ships led President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress on 2 April 1917 for a Declaration of War. Only 6 Senators and 50 Representatives voted against the proposal and President Woodrow Wilson signed the resolution that the United States of America had declared war on Germany. This became effective on 6 April 1917.
In pre-war Dover there had been Consulates – defined as ‘an official appointed by a government to reside in a foreign country and represent its interests there.’ The Imperial German Consulate was Sir William Crundall – thirteen times Mayor of Dover and Chairman of Dover Harbour Board. The German Consulate Office was at 2 Strond Street and the Vice Consul was Ernest Ardlie Marsh (1858-1938). Sir William was also the Vice-Consul for the United States of America and the US Consular Agent was his brother, Frederick Crundall (1863-1934)! Mexico was represented by a Vice-Consul in Dover and this was another of Sir William’s brothers, Percy (1869-1940). With the outbreak of War both Germany and America closed their Consulates but Percy Crundall remained the Mexico representative and therefore was privy to the discussions surrounding the supposed Zimmerman Note and the US entry into the War. This propelled him to be involved in discussions with the American delegates as to where it would be best, to base their troops in Britain. Supported by his two brothers, they brought the almost abandoned Swingate airfield to the notice of the US procurement officers.
When America entered the War their Regular Army, National Guard, and National Army, which included conscripts, was combined into the United States Army. This mixed experienced soldiers with untrained recruits and many of the latter served as infantrymen – nicknamed ‘Doughboys’ – supported by artillery and tank units. Initially, about 60% of the army worked for the Service of Supply, which oversaw the logistical operations, laying telegraph lines, railways, and roads. African Americans were segregated and mostly assigned to unskilled labour jobs such as unloading supplies, canteen work or grave digging. The US did not have a separate air service instead, most non-civilian aviators were part of the existing military and naval establishments. From late 1914, an increasing number of American civilian aviators had joined the French air service and 38 of them formed the Lafayette Escadrille Squadron. Since that time they had been very active on the Front but their existence remained unrecognised by the American Government. This changed on 11 April 1917 when Newton Diehl Baker Junior (1871-1937) Secretary of State for War (1916-1921) officially stated that the US recognised their services and desired them to remain at the Front, working with the Allies. They were transferred as the 103rd Aero Squadron, wore American uniforms and flew under American colours.
Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps had been founded on 1 August 1907 and the 1st Aero Squadron, with 29 factory-built aircraft was the first permanent US air squadron. The Aviation Section, Signal Corps (ASSC) was created by the 63rd Congress on 18 July 1914 and absorbed the Aeronautical Division. Not long after, Major Hiram Bingham III (1875-1956) learned to fly and subsequently organised the United States Schools of Military Aeronautics at 8 universities. These flying training schools usually produced a candidate for commissioning in 15 to 25 hours of flight. When the US entered the War, it was from these flying schools that approximately 1,700 cadets were to be sent to Europe to undertake the entire flying portion of their training in Great Britain, France, and Italy. Swingate airfield or more correctly, the United States Army Airfield, Dover was designated as one of these training schools!
The rebuilding of Swingate was supervised by US military contractors using local labour. Dover, at that time, boasted of 30 building and contracting companies and although since the outbreak of War most of their able bodied workers had joined the navy or army the businessmen were quick to accept the American contracts. They supplemented their workforce with retired construction workers, off duty mariners and miners as well as members of their families, young boys and women. Building supplies were brought in by ship from the US but as Swingate was beginning to take shape these materials were disappearing from the site. Dover’s Chief Constable Fox was asked to arrange for some of his police officers to deal with the problem. He declined, due the wartime depletion of his force, the pressure on those that remained because of the the continuing German attacks on Dover and the demands of the military authorities in connection with the surveillance that they felt to be necessary in a military area such as Dover. So the Americans brought in Irish police officers from Chicago, in the belief that they had the same accents as the locals, who spoke Dovorian!
As noted above, that year Dover produced a good crop of spring potatoes out of which, so the story goes, Polish military personnel based in Dover made liquor. This was offered, as a goodwill gesture, to the American police officers and military contractors and relations became amicable. When Swingate was finally finished many repairs to the neglected and war damaged properties in Dover were also completed and as a consequence more properties were sold since before the War! Unfortunately, the principal buyers of large premises were property developers and this has left a detrimental legacy that still blights Dover to this day. In the short term some Dovorians were flush with money, which made the town’s contribution to the country’s Great War Loan Fund one of the most successful in the country – £570,000 was raised! Finally, when the American police officers and military contractors went home, they did speak positively of their stay in Dover!
On the first night the American contractors arrived in Dover, 20-21 April, they witnessed their first Channel sea battle. Five German destroyers attempted a raid on the port and town but it was met by two Dover Patrol destroyers and three German vessels were sunk. Two were torpedo boats G85 and G42 and in the morning 10 German officers and 108 men, who had been rescued, were brought into Dover. Of the sea battle, one of the Americans wrote that the ‘sound of rapid and fairly heavy gunfire awoke most of us at about 00.30hours. And there was no doubt that it was coming from a seaward direction … In the darkness it was impossible to see quite what was happening … at rapid intervals bright star shells were sent up … they were brilliant and as they burst in groups they made a pyrotechnic effect. Each flight of star shells was followed by rapid firing and the flashes of guns through the darkness …’
The Germans launched their strategic bombing campaign Operation Turkenkreuz in May 1917 and this was to last until April 1918. It consisted of squadrons of about 16 Gotha G. IV bomber aeroplanes of the Kagohl 3 to attack London, East Anglia and South East England. The latter usually was east of a patrol line that Kagohl 3 operated stretching from Throwley, south of Faversham, through Bekesbourne to Hougham, west of Dover. During that period there were 113 air-raid alarms and the town was bombarded with 185 bombs and 23 shells. The number of civilians killed was 23 and 71 were injured. On Friday, 25 May 1917, the Gotha bombers, using the Thames for navigation, were intent of attacking Essex airfields but due to heavy cloud, on reaching the Thames they turned south. At about 18.20hours the sky cleared and this was when the squadron was just north of Folkestone. They dropped their loads over the town. As Folkestone was not considered to be in danger of air attacks, no sirens were sounded and Tontine Street, crowded with shoppers, received the brunt of the raid. 71 civilians – 16 men, 28 women and 27 children – were killed, while those injured amounted to more than 94.
On the Continent, 7 June saw the start of the Battle of Messines (7-14 June) with the British /Australians/ New Zealanders and Canadians on the offensive. The objective was to capture the Wytschaete Ridge, the high ground southeast of Ypres. After the disaster of the earlier Neville offensives the French moral was low. Thus the idea of the offensive was to move the German Reserves from Arras and Aisne in order to take the pressure off the French. The attack started with the detonation of 21 mines beneath the German Front position, of which 19 exploded creating large craters. It was reported that the noise created by the explosions was the loudest ever recorded to that date and could be heard as far away as Dublin. The explosions also blew the crest off the Messines/ Wytschaete Ridge! This was followed by a 700 yard ‘creeping barrage’ – an artillery attack developed by the British, where one or more guns were fired steadily, continuously and indirectly for a fixed period of time, then moved forward to the next pre-determined point and did the same again. Supporting this manoeuvre were tanks, aircraft – both balloons and aeroplanes – and gas attacks using Livens projectors. This was a mortar-like weapon that could throw the contents of large canisters of flammable chemical and was designed by William Howard Livens (1889-1964) of the Royal Engineers.
The Battle of Messines for the Allies was a much-needed success that boosted moral and it is particularly noted that two Irish divisions, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division, for the first time fought together and won an incontestable victory! There was a cost for the Irish but relatively low by the standards of the First World War. For the Australians it was high, 6,056 casualties and for the New Zealanders with 4,978 casulaties. For the Germans however, it was the heaviest as they lost approximately 25,000 of their soldiers with as many as 10,000 being killed when the mines exploded. Of the two mines that did not explode, neither was located at the time but in 1955, during a thunderstorm, one did explode and killed a cow. The other, at the time of writing, has not been found.
Haig had long held the belief that the best chance of a break through the German lines would be an offensive in Flanders and would have preferred that option in the summer of 1916 rather than the Somme. Planned to the last detail, the objective of the offensive he now proposed was to take control of the village of Passchendaele, not far from Messines on the ridges southeast of Ypres. This was envisaged to be done by outflanking the German Fourth Army defences and forcing them to withdraw from the Continental Channel Ports. Both Lloyd George and General Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) had fiercely opposed the proposal at the Chantilly Conference – the then Commander of the French Northern Army Group and at the time of Haig’s proposal, the Chief of the General Staff (France). With the success of the Battle of Messines under his belt, Haig managed to persuade the British War Cabinet on 25 July and it was agreed to send the Fifth Army, formed in May 1916 from voluntary conscripts and under the command of Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough (1870-1963).
Over the next few days ships left Dover packed with newly recruited/trained volunteer conscripts to join the ones already in the field. Of note, from July 1917 until the Armistice, 2,694 designated troop transport ships crossed the Channel out of Dover 11,938 times and carried nearly four million troops to the Continent. On Thursday 26 July, although German Albatros in a ratio of 50-37 outnumbered RFC fighters, the latter managed to hold their own, while other squadrons undertook reconnoitring. The next day these were joined by further RFC squadrons and Allied air forces and by the evening of Saturday 28 July there were over 800 aircraft in the vicinity of which 330 were fighter aircraft. On that day the weather had been unusually fine and squadrons spent time reconnoitring and it was noted that many of the German batteries had moved from where they had been two days before.
That evening the weather started to deteriorate and after a night of heavy rain that continued the next day, limiting the follow up. Those who did manage to get up, found that again a significant number of German batteries had moved. Flying was curtailed due to bad weather on Sunday 29 and by midnight of Monday 30 July, it was torrential rain. That day the air plan had again been cancelled, nonetheless, another 40 aircraft managed to fly in and all the aircraft, which included 330 fighters, were concentrated between the Lys River and the sea. There were also bomber squadrons, artillery-observation squadrons and balloons. A few pilots had gone up with most undertaking low-level flying to see if the Germans had moved again. Some had, though bullets and shells in the process damaged thirty Allied aeroplanes.
The Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-10 November 1917), better known simply as Passchendaele, started on Tuesday 31 July and was to last until 10 November that year. As it was high summer, Haig had hoped that the weather would be kinder than it had been the previous year at the Somme. Instead it was worse, much worse. Nonetheless, in the early hours of 31 July more than a quarter of a million Allied soldiers left the rain sodden trenches to do their bit at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (31 July-2 August). They waded through the deep, sticky mud of no-mans land, some leading horses that were failing to keep their footing and others digging out the tanks that were sinking in the stuff. As for aeroplanes, because of the sludgy conditions only a few took off and flew at low level but most, like the tanks, were immobilised and men, horses and pack mules suffocated as they drowned in swamps. The rain did not let up – Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall for 30 years and the low lying heavily shelled area turned into a tenacious morass. Nonetheless on that first day the Allies managed to gain 1.7miles of ground but at a loss of nearly 32,000 men and Haig counted the outcome as a victory.
Over the next few days the whole of the Pilckem Ridge had been captured except for Gheluvelt Plateau that ran along the southern edge of the Ypres Salient. The next offensive, known as the Capture of Westhoek (10 August) had initially been planned to take place on 2 August but delayed due to the atrocious weather. That day, the now exhausted men had to wade through knee deep mud, as the rain still had not stopped. Air back up and reconnaissance was severely limited and both wireless and telephones were down. The fall back in communication was the age-old carrier pigeons and in consequence attacks were made on empty gun emplacements and the Allies were being shot at from gun emplacements they did not know existed. Moral was sinking lower with every passing hour and the result was a German victory. The most moving story to come out of the tragedy was that of Pigeon 2709 that had been despatched from the Front line to carry a message back to base. Enroute, the little bird was hit by enemy fire and the bullet that broke his leg then passed through its tiny body taking the metal container with the message inside with it. The metal cylinder became embedded but the little pigeon carried on. It took 21 probably agonising hours to arrive but he did and the message was delivered. Pigeon 2709 died the following day of his injuries and was posthumously awarded the Animal Victoria Cross – the Dickin medal.
It had been hoped that the weather would have let up by the time of the Battle of Langemarck (16-18 August) that was the next designated offensive – instead it rained continuously. Of the Allies, Units involved were the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division that had successfully fought together at Battle of the Messines Ridge. Before the Battle of Langemarck began the two Divisions were down to a third of the number of men at the start of Battle of the Messines Ridge, due to death and injury. What happened is best described by Cyril Bentham Falls (1888-1971) the historian of the 36th Division, ‘The story of the attack, alas! Is not a long one. Enemy machine guns all along the front opened fire almost simultaneously with our barrage. There were assuredly not 2,000 infantrymen in the force who went over the top. The foremost wave must have consisted of less than 300 men, probably reduced to a third within half a minute.’ All told, there were 68,010 Allied casualties at Langemarck of which 10,266 had been killed. The Germans suffered 24,000 casualties including 5,000 missing.
The successful outcome of three consecutive battles restored confidence, the first was the Battle of Menin Road Ridge (20–25 September), a combined British, Australian and South African operation. Throughout the Battle, the Allies ground forces worked in tandem with the air forces with the German air force suffering badly. The second was the Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September-3 October) when the weather came to the aid of the Allies, the sun shone from early morning that not only dried out the ground but also created a mist that enabled the forces to move without being seen. It was a combined British and Australian action where again the ground and air forces worked closely together giving the Allies definite superiority over their German counterparts.
The third was the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October) at the east end of the Gheluvelt plateau by the British, Australian and New Zealanders. It started badly, with heavy rain that was to continue most days until the end of the offensive in November. The 4 October had been chosen by the Germans to launch a counter offensive for which they were preparing when the Allies launched an early morning attack that took them by surprise. For once the Germans were notably weak and disorganised while the Allies ground and air forces again worked together with the infantry receiving a great deal of support from the aircraft even though the visibility was poor. Of interest, taking part was the No 4 Squadron, one of the original four squadrons that had left Swingate at the outbreak of the War in 1914. Although the outcome of the three battles, established Allied possession of the ridge east of Ypres their losses amounted to over 61,000 men.
Following the capture of the Gheluvelt plateau very little was achieved as many of the Allied forces were diverted to Italy following the Austro-German victory at the Battle of Caporetto (24 October-19 November). The weather in Belgium remained wet and winter set in early precluding any chance of the Allies reaching the Channel ports until the following year. Nonetheless, the Third Battle of Ypres ended in a hard won victory on Tuesday 6 November when British and Canadian forces recaptured the village of Passchendaele. On that Tuesday morning, not surprisingly it was raining! The British launched an attack at 06.00hrs against the German positions in the neighbourhood of Passchendaele and made satisfactory progress. Meanwhile the Canadians successfully attacked German defences in and around Passchendaele notably the fortress at Mosselmarkt and the hamlet of Goudberg. They then advanced towards the Goudberg Spur northwest of Passchendaele. To reach the high ground of the Spur they had to cover 2,000yards of mostly marshy ground. The unsettled misty weather had protected them in the morning and when it cleared in the afternoon it assisted the artillery and airmen to use their guns effectively against German batteries and concentrations of hostile infantry. After hard fighting the Canadians raised their flag at 21.30hours and the accolade ‘no troops could have done it better’ was bestowed on them!
Passchendaele was won at a cost of about 500,000 casualties – approximately 275,000 Allies: 216,000 British, 38,000 Australians, 15,700 Canadians and 5,300 New Zealanders fell – killed, wounded or missing and more than 200,000 Germans. Nonetheless, as we will see later, the outcome of Passchendaele lifted the spirits of those back home at a time when the Allies moral was at its lowest. However, in his Memoirs published in 1933, David Lloyd George wrote, ‘Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign.’
Although the Americans were not involved in Campaigns until 1918, their entry into the War had a direct effect on innovation, for instance, the gyro-compass was made by the Anschutz-Kaempe Company of Kiel, Germany to sense the direction of ships by being set to indicate true north. This, the gyro-compass maintains through the operation of a gyroscope, regardless of movement in the immediate environment. Used in the gyrocompass, the gyroscope consists of a flywheel mounted inside a ring on an axis that leaves it free to pivot in any direction without been prone to disturbance from outside forces. The original instrument was modified for shipping by the American inventor Elmer Ambrose Sperry (1860-1930) who further modified the instrument for use on aircraft in 1911, but this was crude. The instrument used for shipping was manufactured by Sperry in the US and by Anschutz-Kaempe Company in Germany. Prior to WWI, Britain bought the German manufactured gyrocompass and gyroscopes. At the outbreak of War, Britain switched to buying them from Sperry although the company, having a monopoly, increased their prices. Electrical engineer, inventor and successful businessman, Sidney George Brown (1873-1948) an American born of English parents, set about producing them for the Royal Navy and British merchant ships. He also devised a new method of damping the oscillation set up in a compass by a change in course called ‘liquid ballistic control’ and on 3 August 1916 the patent was granted.
In the meantime in America, Sperry’s son, Lawrence Burst Sperry (1892-1923), a keen inventor and aviator created a gyrostabiliser in 1913. This could control the elevators and ailerons of an aircraft through a series of servos and he successfully implemented this gyrostabiliser technology into aircraft – winning the 1914 Aero Club of France’s competition. Although never commercially exploited, the system laid the foundation for the autopilot system. He also solved the problem of magnetic compasses indicating the opposite position when an aircraft is turning. This he did by inventing the Gyro Turn Indicator – later modified as the Turn and Slip Indicator and Turn Coordinator. By adding Directional Gyro and Gyro Horizon, Sperry created a core of flight instruments that have become standard aircraft equipment. With America entering the War, these innovations were quickly incorporated into British manufactured aircraft. However, on Thursday 13 December 1923, on a flight from London to Amsterdam in his own designed aeroplane, Lawrence Sperry disappeared over the Channel. The wreckage of his aeroplane was found by coastguards’ 3 miles off Rye, Sussex and his body was washed up onto a nearby beach a month later.
The Americans entering the War, also had a negative effect on Britain’s use of innovation. From before the War, the Germans had used wireless communication to co-ordinate their shipping far more than the Allies and from September 1914 wireless communication was used to provide information to their U-boats / submarines. Further, the Germans had become masters at intercepting Allies wireless messages but for reasons unclear, the Allies were slow to devise coding! This is a conundrum as the German Imperial Navy did have a codebook to use for sending messages and one came into British possession in 1914! The Admiralty, at that time, set up a cryptoanalysis section to decipher the book and other encrypted material, particularly wireless messages that came into their possession. This had proved to be satisfactory and when the US entered the War, the cryptoanalysis section expected they would work together. The US recruited American wireless operators not only for the Front line but also to assist against the German submarine campaign, some operating out of Swingate. This was expected to be part of the transmission and collecting information coverage of the Channel but as the US government had assumed control of their wireless industry there was an inherent distrust of the Allies. This limited the amount of information shared with the various bodies protecting the Channel such as the Dover Patrol, military, naval, Western Front personnel and the Coastguard. Further, suspicious messages that would have been sent to the cryptoanalysists were probably withheld and together possibly prolonged the War.
On 14 February 1917, Prince’s Wireless Testing Park moved from Joyce Green to the newly opened airfield at Biggin Hill to be part of the RFC Radio Signals Unit. The Commandant was Colonel Harry Borlase Triscott Childs (1884-1960), who had been a Marconi Engineer prior to the War. Prince was soon joined by his old team from Brooklands, by then, headed by his old colleague the promoted Captain John Furnival. One of the many aspects they were working on was inter aircraft speech communication, using as a base the Mark One aircraft to ground wireless apparatus. It was this that Prince had demonstrated to Lord Kitchener and Sir Douglas Haig in February 1916 but at the time both had found reasons as to why not to proceed with further experimentation. Encouraged by Trenchard and Dowding, Prince and his Bat team had continued to work assiduously in overcoming the clarification of transmitted speech. They tried different types of diaphragms but each time voices or accents or both came over distorted. Then they found that if the operator’s headphones were connected to the transmitter circuitry, so that hearing the sound of his own voice, he could alter his speech patterns to aid transmission.
Prince organised a trial with two aircraft at St Omer and two pilots with different accents/ intonation and Trenchard listening to their conversation through a third receiver. He was impressed and following a second trial with two different pilots with totally different accents and intonations the trial was equally successful, immediately informing the Directorate of Military Aeronautics, Lieutenant General Sir David Henderson. By this time Haig recognised the importance of both the wireless and aeroplanes in the war effort. The equipment was installed in a number of aircraft including the Home Defence Flight No 50 Squadron some of whom were stationed at Swingate. On 31 October 1917 it was reported that, ‘Fighters were put on readiness at 22.38. Four pilots briefly saw bombers, which quickly vanished. Two pilots, Oswell and Lucas, flying B.E.12’s of No 50 Squadron both signalled their sightings back to base. Oswell followed a Gotha flying at 11,500-ft. northwest from Dover. The crew of a Strutter N5617 from Eastchurch picked up the Gotha. They closed in and the observer fired a drum from his Lewis gun. Shortly afterwards they lost sight of the machine.’ The upgraded Mark I apparatus, the Mark III, was increasingly carried on all British reconnaissance aircraft in order to communicate with artillery batteries and for his work, Prince was awarded the OBE.
Major Hiram Bingham took over the Dover American Air base – as Swingate was renamed towards the end of July 1917 and instructors from America along with the first cadets arrived shortly after. They had arrived, quietly alongside the Prince of Wales Pier in the early hours of the morning, having crossed the Atlantic in rough weather. It was later said that this was possibly why they were not harassed with U- boats. The tired men walked up to Swingate and without any particular order they bunked down in the prepared huts. By morning the news was spreading around Dover that they had arrived and by noon Stars & Stripes flags had been hoisted on the Town Hall, the Castle and both public and private buildings.
Later that day the men and cadets came into Dover wearing their khaki breeches, well polished brown knee length boots with matching thick leather belts. The jackets buttoned up to the neck with no collar and some wore khaki coloured peaked service hats, while others wore military caps but most wore campaign hats with ‘Montana creases’. The men were, on average, taller and thicker set than the locals and most chewed gum. This was of particular interest to children who quickly nicknamed them rabbits! The senior officers/trainers at the camp were entertained by Mayor Farley and other officials of the town and their uniform was much smarter with brown, well polished leather shoes, beige straight legged trousers, chocolate brown military style jacket with ribbons, badges and insignia. Underneath could be seen beige shirts and ties and their chocolate brown peaked service hat was worn at a rakish angle that appealed to the ladies!
They spoke much louder than the locals and some of the new arrivals were particularly disparaging about the British and Colonial soldiers military abilities on the Front line. They endorsed their argument by referring to the length of time the War had gone on and the number that had been killed – many local men had been killed. The mouthier of the locals retorted emphasising the length of time it had taken before the Americans came into the War to support the Allies. As it was known that the new arrivals had been blighted with seasickness in the crossing, they told the newcomers that they were, ‘green in face and yellow in belly.’ The situation was already escalating when some of the Americans assumed that the Royal Victoria Hospital nurses home, Wood Street, off the High Street, was a whore house.
On hearing this, Chief Constable Fox left the Town Hall proceedings, already not happy with the attitude of the American officers that were being entertained there. Together with a number of not so young local police officers they marched into the nurses’ home. There, his men manhandled and booted the Americans onto Wood Street and stiffly informed the senior Swingate officers that ‘All the men would require special passes, authorised by himself, to come into Dover again! By that evening, except for a flag on the Castle – the headquarters of Admiral Reginald Bacon in charge of Fortress Dover, – all the Stars and Stripes memorabilia in the town had been removed. In the town the men at Swingate were referred to, with disdain, the standard variation of ‘Uncle Sam’ – Sammies or/and Yanks.
It had previously been discussed with Admiral Bacon that some of the American cadets arriving at Swingate would be well used to military discipline and what was expected of them. Consequently, it was agreed, when they were acclimatised to their new role they would be sent to the School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford. There they would be taught basic flying skills, aerial combat, repairing machines etc. before being sent back to Swingate to finish off their training. The trainee pilots would not be gazetted until they had completed 25hours of flying following which, suggested Bacon, in preparation for going to the Front, they should join No 50 Squadron Home Defence Flight that remained at Swingate on sojourns supporting the Dover Patrol. Also the proposed Squadron 59 and Squadron 69 that were being brought in as part of the Channel defences. All of this was agreed and practical arrangements started to be put into effect.
However, in charge of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) combat operations which the airmen would join on the Front, was the American Commander-in-Chief, General John Joseph ‘Black Jack’ Pershing (1860-1948). However, at that time, he had not long been in the European theatre of War and had openly scorned the slow trench warfare of the previous three years on the Western Front. He had also told Haig and Pétain that the AEF would operate as a single unit under his command and, as far as Bacon’s suggestion on gaining practical experience, Pershing was adamant that the airmen would get all the practical experience required when they joined the AEF on the Front. The raw recruits that had and would continually arrive at Swingate would spend the first twelve weeks undergoing the full basic American army training. Some would then go to the Military Aeronautics school at Oxford and like the earlier cadets, would return to Swingate to complete their training and then go straight to the Front.
Out of the raw recruits, many underwent pilot and observer training but most trained to become mechanics. The British were, by this time, earning a high reputation in aeronautical engineering including the training of mechanics in maintaining and repairing aeroplanes in the field. An offer was made to help with the training but was firmly rejected by the American command. Instead, the ASSC set up the Motor Mechanics Regiment, Signal Corps the training officers of which were to come from the American automobile industry. Graduating officers were to be classed as ‘technical officers’ and their job was to supervise aircraft maintenance and the men carrying out the maintenance also underwent their training at Swingate. Albeit, the training officers from the automobile industry quickly made it clear that they were out of their depth with aeroplanes with one reported as saying that the high command had thought an aeroplane was just a motor car with wings!
From the outset, the uselessness of the training that the mechanics received in aeronautic maintenance was questioned by Colonel Sidney Dunn Waldon (1873-1945) of the Signal Corps. His background straddled both the automobile industry and flying and he spent time observing British factory and field methods in aviation operations. He was also a Chartered member of the US Aircraft Production Board and had been posted to France to established airfields. It was in this capacity that he had been looking at the British methods. In February 1918 he made his report and recommended aircraft, rather than automobile mechanics, both British and American, be recruited as teachers.
This was immediately instigated at Swingate and the trainees became efficient at assessing what was wrong with the aeroplane and speedily putting things right. They were trained not only with what the vast array of spare parts were for, but were able to adapt and even to make new ones. They were expected to know how cameras work and again be able to fix and adapt as necessary and the same applied to wirelesses maintenance, bombs, rockets and machine guns. The first American aircraft trained mechanics took up duties at the end of July 1918. As for the original cadets and men and those who continued to be trained by the automobile industry teachers that remained at Swingate became specialists in vehicle maintenance and horse transport and some were sent to the Western Front while others remained in Britain in that capacity.
To accommodate the Americans, billet huts had been erected at Swingate and also on Northfall Meadow. As more Americans arrived, new raw recruits were housed in tents erected on the adjacent Edinburgh Hill and the Cow Pastures on Long Hill – now the site of Danes Court and the Girls’ Grammar School sports ground. Kitchens, food and clothing stores were all at Swingate, along with a small medical facility complete with beds, medical equipment etc. and rocking chairs! There was a large bakery with its own store for white flour that was imported from the US. Canned, bottled food and drink was imported and an area of airfield was given over to growing vegetables, the seeds of which were also imported.
The main training aircraft for the US Army back home was the Curtiss JN-4, nicknamed Jenny. These were biplanes built by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company of Hammondsport, New York. Until they arrived, it was decided that the main training aircraft for the recruits to the ASSC at Swingate was to be the new Royal Aircraft Factory’s Scout Experimental 5 or S.E.5. This was one of the fast fighter biplanes that Trenchard had told Lloyd George and Haig would be coming on line during 1917. The aeroplane had been developed by Henry Folland (1889-1954), John Kenworthy (1883-1940) and Frank Widenham Goodden (1889-1917) and had a geared 200 hp Hispano-Suiza 8b engine. Its stability made it an ideal gunnery platform and it was manoeuvrable, safe and relatively easy to fly and was expected to arrive before the year was out.
In charge of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) combat operations as noted, was John Joseph ‘Black Jack’ Pershing. Besides insisting that the AEF was to operate as a single unit under his command, he believed that American soldiers’ skill with the rifle would enable them to avoid costly and senseless fighting over a small area of no-man’s land. Thus proficiency in this skill was high on the training agenda, particularly for the raw recruits at Swingate. To incorporate the amount of time spent on the rifle range with the other skills the cadets had to be taught, meant that the days were very long but was accepted by the instructors. However, what became a major source of contention with Pershing’s office was the practical experience that could have been gained by the newly graduated airmen if they had spent time attached to the Dover Patrol, Channel and Home Defence Squadrons. Pershing was dogmatic in his refusal but from off the record reports, from when the S.E 5’s arrived, a steadily increasing number of recently qualified airmen did join local Channel and Home Defence Squadrons to gain experience.
The previous year, as mentioned above, Mayor Farley, along with a deputation of local Mayors, had attempted to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, Field Marshal French to explain the need for an increase in Home Defence against the German air raids. The Field Marshal had refused to see them so the general feeling was that he didn’t care. This they said, they could not comprehend, as French was a local man so should have appreciated the vulnerability of East Kent. What they did not know was, at the time they had tried to see him, Field Marshal French was strenuous lobbying to combine the RFC and the RNAS to create better protection for places like East Kent. Eventually he found an ally – the South African Lieutenant General Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950). Smuts had been invited by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, to join the Imperial War Cabinet and the War Policy Committee. Under its umbrella, Lloyd George set up a Cabinet Committee to consider air organisation and air defence.
The Prime Minister was the chairman of the Committee and he invited Smuts to be the only other member. He also seconded the calm, wise Lieutenant General Sir David Henderson, as Smut’s adviser. In less than a month, on 17 August 1917, Smuts presented his radical report to the War Council on the future of Britain’s air power. Because of the potential for the ‘devastation of enemy lands and the destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale’, he recommended a new air service be formed that would be on a level with the Army and Royal Navy. The War Cabinet accepted the report and Smuts was appointed to chair a committee to work out the details with Henderson remaining his principal adviser. On 1 April 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form the new service, the Royal Air Force (RAF), under the control of a new Air Ministry.
On 19 August 1917, a Sunday afternoon, tragedy struck Dover when a tram bound for River went out of control as it descended Crabble Road, near the Cricketers Inn, River. About two weeks before the Dover Express reported that 70 tram drivers had gone to the Front since the outbreak of war and that inexperienced drivers, usually War casualties, were driving the trams. The driver of the River tram was one such inexperienced driver who failed to apply the slipper brake as the tram descended the hill. As it went out of control, the driver jumped free of the vehicle while an off duty soldier, Trooper Gunner, tried to stop the tram, using his feet as emergency brakes. The tram overturned, struck a wall and smashed the upper deck. The Cricketers Inn quickly became a first aid centre with locals administering first aid. Trams and military ambulances, including some from Swingate, were used to take most of the injured, 51 altogether, to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Army personnel were taken to the Military Hospital on Western Heights. Eleven people were killed and had been taken to Dover’s Market Hall. Trooper Gunner lost both his feet, but in recognition of his bravery was awarded the Albert Medal.
Three days later, on 22 August a group of seven or eight Gotha planes in squadron formation came over the town at a height of 11.000 to 12,000feet and dropped a dozen bombs. Many fell into the Harbour but one dropped in the yard of the Admiralty Harvey pub in Bridge Street and another fell in the grounds of Dover College, near a party of reservists in training, killing two and wounding three others. A third fell on a house in Folkestone Road and passed right through the floors without exploding. Two of the raiders were brought down by anti-aircraft gunfire and attacks by those of the No 50 Squadron stationed at Swingate flying B.E.12’s. A third raider was shot down near the coast by an RNAS aircraft.
As Bacon had previously told the American senior personnel at Swingate, at the end of August Squadron 59 and Squadron 69 came on station. They were based at Swingate and Calais respectively and their job was to protect the English Channel. Previously Squadron 59 had been operating on the Western Front for over a year. Although given the designation Squadron 69, they were in fact No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) a branch of the Australian Army. No. 3 Squadron had been raised in Egypt, where there was an RFC training school and had been joined by airmen from AFC No 1 Squadron or had come directly from the Australian Central Flying School, Point Cook, Melbourne. They had only just arrived on the Western Front. Both Squadron 59 and No. 3 Squadron flew Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 reconnaissance aircraft and liaised with their counterparts in Squadron 50 in Home Defence and the Dover Patrol. The R.E.8 was a British two-seater biplane and was the standard British reconnaissance and artillery observation aircraft that came on station in mid-1917.
The ASSC staff and cadets at Swingate, by this time, had settled down to their heavy schedules and were becoming used to the daytime air attacks. At night the fighting took place at sea which, like the locals, they often watched. Most had gone to bed on the night of 2-3 September when they were awoken by the heavy drone of a Gotha bomber. The sky was clear and the bright moonlight made it easy to see the first bomb drop. It was nearby and exploded on Northfall Meadow where some of the American cadets were housed. On the Meadow the 5th Battalion Royal Fusiliers were in tents and Second Lieutenant Henry Reginald Reader Larcombe (1899-1917) was killed, other soldiers were injured. Bombs continued to be dropped on the town, but there had been no warning and the sirens remained silent. The cadets could not see any searchlights in operation nor did any guns fire at the raider. Fear was all-pervasive.
Nothing was said the next day, instead the cadets were informed that on 30 August, the American and French governments had agreed to purchase 1,500 French Aéronautique Militaire Breguet 14 B.2 bomber-reconnaissance planes; 2,000 French SPAD S XIII fighters and 1,500 Nieuport 28 pursuit planes for the ASSC. Further, it was expected that they would all have been delivered on or by 1 July 1918 and that Swingate would get some of each for training purposes. As it turned out, due to shortages the ASSC only received Nieuport 28 fighters. These differed from the earlier Nieuports in that they had two spars to both upper and lower wings. A total of 258 were built in Britain before the deadline and some were sent to Swingate for training purposes.
At the beginning of October the first batch of S.E 5’s arrived at Swingate, causing great excitement. As they could be quickly converted into two-seater training aircraft this made them extra special and popular with the American instructors at Swingate. As this view was reflected throughout the US training airfields in the UK, the American government ordered more but by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, back at Hammondsport. Unfortunately, the company only managed to produce and send one to the UK before the War ended. On 30 October ten bombs were dropped on Swingate smashing many of the new aeroplanes and damaging others. Three bombs were dropped on the harbour and the following day a raid lasting five hours hit the town by a large number of hostile aeroplanes. Incendiary bombs were dropped along the Seafront with one causing an outbreak of fire at the Seaplane Base. Between 04.00hours and 06.30hours in the early morning, four bombs were dropped in a row from the Camber at Eastern Docks to Fort Burgoyne, with one falling on Northfall Meadow close to a billet hut housing American cadets.
Due to these raids and the deterioration in the general economy, all the shops in Dover closed by six o’clock, and in many cases by five o’clock. Evening entertainment, meetings and social gatherings ceased except on moonless nights, when there was less chance of an evening raid. Food shortages continued to increase although the summer crop of potatoes was far in excess than the amount normally grown. However, regardless of the sugar cards, getting the commodity was almost impossible. This started to apply to butter in September and by November 1917 the same applied to margarine. The shortage of tea made it a luxury commodity to be drunk only on special occasions but the Food Control Committee was doing their best and the Food Production Committee remained successful in getting hold of milk. Many had lost their loved ones so far in a War that seemed to have no ending and compounded by the food shortages, an air of sadness seemed to pervade everything. Then on 6 November the town heard of the outcome of the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele. The fatality of defeat evaporated overnight, lifting peoples’ spirits. Postcards, reflecting this view appeared and were sent to friends and family.
The relationship between the Americans and the town was still distant although many locals had jobs up at Swingate. The Americans saw them as a miserable, hostile, complaining lot but on seeing the dramatic change in attitude following the news on the outcome of Passchendaele, they realised the toll the continual stress had taken on the folk of Dover. As a result they decided to try and make amends for their arrogant behaviour when they first arrived. All the American bases in England and France had already planned to have a special Thanksgiving Day lunch, Thursday 28 November, as they were so far away from home. At Swingate the Americans invited the town’s school children, their teachers, Mayor Farley, Chief Constable Fox and a few others to join them for the Thanksgiving Day lunch. Mayor Farley accepted the invitation on behalf of the town and in the classrooms teachers focused on ensuring that the children had some understanding of the American history and the significance of Thanksgiving Day.
The Americans sent vehicles into Dover to pick up their guests and the children were scrubbed clean and promised their mothers that they would be on best behaviour. On arrival the children were over awed by the decorations of the large hall where the celebrations was to be held and quietly sat down on the benches and chairs provided. A tall man in his late twenties, who said that he was a cadet, with a booming voice seemed to be in charge of proceedings asking the children what they knew about Thanksgiving Day. The children shuffled in their seats and some put their hands up. He pointed to a thin faced girl with two whispy plaits, wearing a thin dress and a small shawl who had put up her hand revealing a bony bare arm. She stood up and all hushed and in a quiet but confident voice she told him that the Pilgrim Fathers had celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and that President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) had proclaimed it a national holiday. The Americans clapped and the officer thanked her, smiled and said, almost in an arrogant voice, he bet none of the children knew what year that was. Almost in unison all the children called out 1863! The Americans were impressed and the officers, men, teachers, dignitaries and children all settled to eat more food and of a greater variety than most of the children had ever seen. The children were particularly dumbfounded when roasted turkeys were brought in on large metal trays, each carried by two men. Most of the children wrapped slices of turkey in whatever they could find and shoved the packages down their pants or in their knickers to take home!
While the children of Dover were enjoying the well deserved time at the Thanksgiving celebrations at Swingate, in France No 40 Squadron that had trained at Swingate were involved in the Battle of Cambrai (20 November-4 December). An offensive launched by the Allies to penetrate the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung or Siegfried Position) a German defensive position built during the winter of 1916–1917 to reduce the strain being felt due to the loss of men and wartime economy. The Hindenburg Line ran from Arras to Laffaux, near Soissons on the River Aisne. Further, even though the Allies had taken every precaution possible to keep the preparations for the Battles of Arras and the Second Battle of the Aisne secret, reconnaissance and civilian informants had ensured that the Germans were prepared and the Hindenburg Line had helped to counter these attacks.
The Bomber Squadrons were designated to take part in the Battle of Cambrai with the RFC long-range night bombers for the first time fitted with Marconi valve transmitters. The Battle opened with the RFC making low level attacks on anti-tank guns, troop concentrations and strong points. Then the Allies attacked with explosive shells on the German trenches and followed this with tanks. The general view towards the worthiness of tanks was not good, so far they had been unreliable, slow and vulnerable to heavy artillery but on 28 July the Tanks Corps had been formed and they were full of confidence. The tanks, much to everyone else’s surprise, made quick progress and soon reached the enemy’s trenches. This caused several of the German units to retreat and by the evening of the first day the Allies had won nine kilometers of terrain and were closing in on Cambrai. The Allies appeared to have the upper hand until 30 November, when the Germans launched a counter attack. Using a barrage of poison gas shells, the Germans advanced more than five kilometers in two hours and then put into effect a new method of fighting developed by the field commander Oskar Emil von Huiter (1857-1934). They sent into the Allies Front lines, small groups of highly skilled and heavily armed soldiers to undertake what turned out to be close quarter massacres. These tactics were referred to as Huiter attacks but by the end of the War they were better known by the designation of the men who carried them out – Stoßtruppen or storm troopers. By 4 December, all the terrain initially won by the Allies had been lost.
On the positive side, the Tank Corps, had proved their machines capabilities and reported that if they too had wirelesses, there would have been a greater co-ordination of commands on the ground. One of the pilots in No 40 Bomber Squadron was Edward (Mick) Mannock (1888-1918) flying a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a biplane fighter aeroplane. Mannock had spent time at Swingate and was one of the Squadron’s foremost pilots. By June 1918 he had brought down 58 machines but the following month Mannock was killed. No 40 Squadron’s Badge heraldry shows a broom chosen to immortalise Mannock’s saying that those who served with the squadron’s job was to ‘sweep the Huns from the air!’ At the end of the Battle, 44,000 Allies were killed, wounded or lost in action (including 6,000 prisoners) and 45,000 Germans (including 10,000 prisoners).
The War had not only taken its toll on the thousands of the young lives of the countries involved but as, had been observed in Dover by the Americans at Swingate, on the folks back home. Unrest was just below the surface and on 8 March 1917 (23 February in the Russian calendar) due to food rationing, this unrest over spilled in St Petersburg, the then capital of Russia. Four days later the country was in revolutionary mood and on 15 March Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1918) abdicated. Called the February Revolution (8-16 March 1917), it was followed by a period of dual power with the Provisional Government holding state power. The other power holder was a national network of Soviets, led by different groups of socialists. They had the support of the majority of the people, the largest group being the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Illych Ulyanov Lenin (1870-1924). He had campaigned for an immediate end to the War with land to be given to the peasants and bread to the workers. In the meantime, following the disaster at Chemin des Dames Ridge when 20% of the French Army had been killed or injured there was the mutiny in France, mentioned above. That was ruthlessly stamped on and caused much ill feeling though the French Government continued to support the Allies in the War effort. In Russia, following the February Revolution, there were frequent mutinies, protests and strikes but the Provisional Government, like France, continued to support the Allies. However, on Thursday 7–8 November (Russia 25-26 October), the Bolshevik led different socialist fractions, workers and soldiers in St Petersburg successfully overthrew the Provisional Government and transferred all its authority to the Bolsheviks.
Their promise to end Russia’s participation in the War was honoured on 3 March 1918 with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and this relieved the pressure on the German Army. With a possibility of a similar outcome in France, the Germans set about bringing France to her knees. Food shortages in Britain led to the introduction of compulsory rationing that was introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918. The possibility of the ill content in Britain spurred the Germans into preparing for a massive offensive. During that winter a German army of seventy-four divisions consisting of about 900,000 men gradually took up positions along a 50mile front defended by thirty British divisions, from Bapaume to Saint-Quentin. The aim was to seize the Channel ports before the American reinforcements that were still in training were deployed. This would put Germany in a strong position to negotiate favourable conditions for the termination of the war.
The story continues …