1917 – On the Offensive & the Americans come to Swingate
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 combined 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 resulting 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 supplies 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 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 foodstuffs 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 instrumental 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 the Swingate aerodrome had been destroyed but they were correct in that except for use by the Home Defence Flight No 50 Squadron it had been almost abandoned.
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’s 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. 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 advanced 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 took 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 Allied 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 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 when 15 lives were lost. The following day the 5,252 ton City of Memphis was sunk with gunfire from a German submarine 35 miles south of Fastnet Rock. Then 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 were 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 to 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 representative for Mexico 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, were combined to form 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 supervised 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 but when the US entered the War, their Aviation Section only had 131 officers of which 35 were pilots and 51 student pilots plus 1087 enlisted men and approximately 280 airplanes. So upon entering the War approximately 1,700 cadets were to be sent from the Universities 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 to the wartime depletion of his force, the pressure on those that remained because of the the continuing German attacks on Dover plus 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 on 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 predetermined 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 morale 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 casualties. 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 Flanders or the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-10 November 1917) are 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-man’s 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 though 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 dispatched 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 relative movement in the immediate environment of the device. 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 being 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 the 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 coordinate 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 Allied 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 cryptanalysts 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 cryptanalysts 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 cryptanalysts 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 the first contingents arrived shortly after. These first arrivals were a mixture of cadets and junior enlisted men under the command of officer/instructors and sergeants of different ranks. By November 1918, approximately 40,000 Americans had applied to join the ASSC – Aviation Section, Signal Corps as cadets, 22,689 were accepted and 17,540 completed ground school training of which about 15,000 were admitted into preliminary training. Most squadrons of cadets, as the trainees were referred to regardless of their age, did their preliminary training at US aerodromes. Albeit, a minority of squadrons did their preliminary training at US aerodromes in the UK, such as Swingate, also in France and Italy. Some 10,000 pilots graduated as first lieutenants in the Signal Officers Reserve Corps and 8,688 became Reserve Military Aviators and either remained in the squadron they were first assigned, reassigned to newly created squadrons or commissioned as instructors at one of the training schools. On arrival in Europe, together with those who had trained in Europe, had to complete advanced specialised training courses in pursuit, bombing or/and observation at specialised schools in the UK and France. Swingate ran all three courses.
These first arrivals had come 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 by 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 public and private buildings.
Later that day groups of cadets and junior enlisted men 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 officers 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!
The Americans spoke much louder than the locals did 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 during 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 whorehouse.
On hearing this, Chief Constable Fox left the Town Hall proceedings, and 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 into 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. The locals referred to the men at Swingate with disdain, calling them 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 that when they were acclimatised to their new role some 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. Those not chosen to train as pilots or observers, would stay at Swingate and learn skills required by ground crews.
The trainee pilots would not be gazetted until they had completed 25hours of flying and as there were a number of AVRO 504’s at Swingate, these would be used. The two-bay all-wooden biplane with a square-section fuselage was the most produced aircraft used in the War with 8,970 made either by AVRO or under licence by other companies. It was first flown in September 1913 and although was used on the Western Front at the beginning of the War it soon became obsolete. However, it quickly proved to be an excellent training aircraft and many different versions came off the production line, more to accommodate the different engines that became available due to shortages than changes in design. When the trainers were satisfied with the progress of the cadets, Bacon suggested that in preparation for going to the Front, they should join No 50 Squadron Home Defence Flight that remained at Swingate and the proposed Squadron 59 and Squadron 69 that were being brought in as part of the Channel defences. It was agreed that the cadets would use their aircraft and the 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). 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. Pershing had also made it clear to Haig and Pétain that the AEF would operate as a single unit under his command. As far as the Dover base was concerned, Bacon’s suggestion on gaining practical experience was rejected. Pershing’s office told the Admiral that Pershing was adamant that the airmen would get all the practical experience required when they joined the AEF on the Front.
Out of the raw recruits, many were sent to Oxford to undergo pilot and observer training but most remained on base where they were 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, Colonel Sidney Dunn Waldon (1873-1945) of the Signal Corps questioned the uselessness of the training that the mechanics received in aeronautical maintenance. 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 establish 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, should 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 wireless 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. They 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 below Dover Castle. 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 large bakery with its own store for white flour that was imported from the US. Canned, bottled food and drink were imported and an area of airfield was given over to growing vegetables, the seeds also having been imported from the US.
There was also a medical facility complete with Registered nurses, Volunteer nurses, beds, medical equipment etc. and rocking chairs! The Registered Nurses belonged to the United States Army Nurse Corps that had been established by the US Congress on 2 February 1901. The Corps was, and still is, composed entirely of Registered nurses and when America entered the War some 20,000 civilian Registered nurses were recruited to serve in 58 military hospitals, many in Europe. The Army also set up a School of Nursing and 5,400 nurses enrolled to train for the Register.
By far the greater number of nurses at Swingate though were volunteers belonging to the American Red Cross. This had been founded in 1881 by Clara Barton (1821-1912), a hospital nurse in the American Civil War (1861-1865) who advocated the provision of humanitarian aid and relief in times of war and disaster. Prior to America entering the War the organisation had 25 paid members of staff, and fewer than 17,000 members. Following the Declaration of War the organisation expanded exponentially and by the beginning of 1918 it had raised $400million, had 31 million members and 8 million active volunteers. Besides nursing, the various branches provided numerous specialities including catering, entertainment, financial advice and bereavement and injury counselling. One of the branches of the volunteer services was the Production Corps. They acquired or made hospital equipment, including beds, bedding, surgical dressings medical supplies, relief items and rocking chairs – an item seen in all the American medical facilities!
The Nursing Service arm of the American Red Cross was founded in 1909. During 1917 the number of ARC nurses enrolled was 23,822 and of these 19,931 were assigned to active duty overseas, including Swingate. These volunteers supported the Registered nursing staff while those with additional psychiatric or social work training were assigned to help the injured returning from the Front. There was also a large contingent of nursing volunteers in the US, helping to support the injured back into civilian life and aiding bereaved families of lost servicemen. In less than two years that the volunteers operated in the war zones, 400 had lost their lives due to enemy fire of which 296 were volunteer nurses.
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 ASSC recruits at Swingate would 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.
Pershing 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, as had happened thus far in the War. Proficiency in this skill was high on the training agenda, particularly for the raw recruits at Swingate. To incorporate the amount of time Pershing demanded that should be spent on the rifle range, with the other skills the cadets had to be taught, meant that the days were very long. Especially as they had to acquire an accepted proficiency in a lot of other skills in the short time allowed.
This situation was reluctantly accepted by the instructors but what became a major source of contention with Pershing’s office was the practical experience that could have been gained by the cadet aviators 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 implied that a steadily increasing number of the trainee aviators 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 who 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 strenuously 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 the tram went out of control, the driver jumped free of the vehicle while an off duty soldier, Trooper Walter George Gunner of the 1st Dragoon Guards attached to the Army Pay Corps, 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 by King George in April 1918.
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. 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. Up at 06.00hours, the cadets were present at their first lesson by 07.30hours. Their courses were intense, including: acoustics, aerodynamics, aeronautic engineering, batteries and charging batteries, camouflage, communication, electricity generating, map reading, meteorology, navigation, photography, pigeon care and training, protective clothing and gas masks, reconnaissance, rifle shooting, telephony, trench warfare, wireless and electromagnetic waves.
The use of camouflage had grown exponentially since the outbreak of War in 1914. At that time the French military uniform was a smart blue jacket with red trousers and a hat that in some regiments was adorned with a feather. It soon became evident that the soldiers made easy targets and the uniform was changed to camouflage ‘horizon-blue’ – a blue-grey. Soon after, the French were camouflaging their equipment and positions and the Allies quickly followed suit along with the Germans. Possibly because the British were running down Swingate in 1916, camouflage did not appear on their curriculum, even though a Camouflage Section had been established at Wimereux, near Boulogne that year. The ASSC, did include camouflage in the cadets training and the Americans were particularly influenced by artist Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola (1871-1950) the commander of the French Camouflage Corps. As a second-class gunner in 1914, Scévola camouflaged his gun emplacement with a painted canvas screen. This and his other camouflage techniques came to the attention of Marshal Joffre and the Section de Camouflage was formed with Scévola at its head. The Section became influential during the Second Battle of Artois (May-June 1915) when they erected their observation tree – an iron lookout post camouflaged with bark and other materials. By 1918, the US Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps had been set up and they created both clothing and disguised military equipment. The most common camouflage erected along the Front by the ASSC, were camouflage woods. These were irregular lines of over hanging trees along what appeared from the sky to be a stream. In fact the stream, which for the most part was in shadow or hidden by the trees, was a boardwalk along which the troops moved to and from the Front.
The Photographic Section of the Signal Corps was established on 21 July 1917, being responsible for the U.S. Army’s official ground and aerial photography of World War I. The remit was photographic coverage for military reconnaissance, identification, scientific and propaganda purposes as well as providing a pictorial history of the US involvement in the war. Initially, there were only 25 men in the Corps but as photography was part of the training of cadets, the number rapidly increased and was part of the Swingate curriculum by late 1917. The Signal Corps had produced ‘Training of the Soldier’ a 62,000 foot training film series as well as ‘Flightwings’ a 16,000 foot aviation training film. Each AEF Division had an assigned photographic unit that consisted of a motion picture cameraman, a still photographer and assistants. The ‘Instructions for Signal Corps Photographers’ was the standard manual in the classroom and also carried by each Division.
As was the case for aeroplanes, America made use of French and British cameras when they became involved in the War. Frederick Charles Victor Laws (1887-1975) started aerial photography experiments in 1912 with No.1 Squadron of the RFC using the British Beta airship. He discovered that vertical photos taken with a 60% overlap could be used to create a stereoscopic effect when viewed in a stereoscope. This enabled the height of objects on the landscape to be determined by comparing photographs taken at different angles. By creating the perception of depth both intelligence and map making were refined. John Moore-Brabazon (1884-1964) invented the first purpose-built and practical aerial camera in 1915 with the help of the Thornton-Pickard Company based in Altrincham, near Manchester. The camera was inserted into the floor of the aircraft and was triggered by the pilot or observer at intervals and later incorporated the stereoscopic techniques. By the time the Americans joined in the conflict aerial cameras were considerably larger and their focal power had dramatically increased and both the Allies and the Germans were photographing the Front twice, if not more times, a day.
The Americans at Swingate 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 and 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 from the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, back at Hammondsport. Unfortunately, the company only managed to produce and send just 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 of 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 were doing their best and they 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 down to Dover to pick up their guests and the children, who were scrubbed clean and had promised their mothers that they would be on their best behaviour. On arrival the children were over awed by the decorations of the large hall where the celebrations were to be held and quietly sat down on the benches and chairs by the long tables that were provided. A tall man in his late twenties, who said that he was a cadet and had a booming voice, introduced himself as Ed and took charge of proceedings. He started by asking the children what they knew about Thanksgiving Day. They shuffled in their seats and some reluctantly put their hands up. A group of the children were pointed to a thin-faced girl with two wispy plaits, wearing a thin dress and a small shawl. She had reluctantly put her hand up and revealed a bony bare arm. Ed, intrigued, pointed to her and when she stood up all the other children and the teachers were quiet. In response to being asked her name, age and school, in an assured clear voice she said that her name was Jane, she would be ten years old at Christmas and that she attended St James School.
The children who evidently attended St James school let out a loud cheer. When they had quietened down, Jane in a confident clear voice that carried round the large hall told the audience 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 audience clapped and Jane was about to sit down when Ed thanked her, smiled and in a jovial tone said that he bet that she did not know what year that was. Without hesitation and with intonation, Jane said, ‘On 3 October 1863 at the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln made a speech, saying that …‘ Jane’s voice took on a slow authoritive, ‘ In every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.’ Jane sat down to a loud applause and her classmates and teachers mouthed ‘well done‘. An officer was told by Jane’s teacher that the little girl was one of the cleverest children in the school but that she had lost her Father at Passchendaele. Then the officers, cadets, teachers, dignitaries and the 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). This was 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. General Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, known simply as Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), became the German Chief of the General Staff in 1916. At a meeting at the German General Headquarters including Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria (1869-1955), Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg (1865-1939) and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia (1882-1951). Hindenburg told them that in his opinion the defence should be improved on the Western Front. What the Allies called the Hindenburg Line, a heavily fortified zone that ran from Arras to Laffaux, near Soissons on the River Aisne was put into place. 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 well prepared.
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 and supporting the British 3rd Army were three regiments of US Army engineers.
Then on 30 November 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 Americans suffered 77 casualties.
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 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 and the largest group were 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. This was ruthlessly stamped on causing much resentment towards the French Government’s continued support of 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 successfully overthrew the Provisional Government in St Petersburg 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 compulsory rationing that was introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918. The possibility of ill content in Britain spurred the Germans into preparing for a massive Spring 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, which were still in training, were deployed. This would put Germany in a strong position to negotiate favourable conditions for the termination of the war.
6. 1918 – Dover and the End of a War to End All Wars
January and February 1918
On a freezing cold New Years Day in 1918, the children with their mothers, mostly widows, were walking towards Northfall Meadow escorted by female American nurses from Swingate and officers and cadets. There they had been entertained to New Years Day lunch in the Officers’ Mess and as the weather was clear, the Dovorians insisted on showing the Americans where Louis Blériot had landed on Northfall Meadow after the first flight across the Channel, nearly ten years before. Jane, the little girl who had impressed the Americans on Thanksgiving Day, was holding her mother Sara’s hand. Walking beside them was Ed, the cadet who had been the Master of Ceremonies that day and now as lieutenant he was wearing the US Army olive uniform with a silver bar on the shoulder loops of the jacket. Tucked underneath one of the loops was a side folding overseas cap. Sara was wearing a black plain hat, dark worn woollen coat and dress, black stockings and shoes.
Describing the day back in 1902, when the town celebrated King Edward VII’s (1841-1910) Coronation. ‘Nine thousand children’, she said emphasising her statement by opening her arms wide, ‘had assembled in Pencester Road. After singing ‘God save the King,’ we marched to the Meadow.’ She went on to describe the event, saying that the children were accompanied on the trek up to the Meadow, by their teachers, some Mums, the Mayor – Alderman Martyn Mowll and the Corporation. Entertainment and tea was provided by the Corporation and as the children left the meadow each received a medal celebrating the Coronation, with a few selected children being given a book.
Sara proudly proclaimed that she still had both Jimmy’s and her medal and that Jimmy had been given a book, which she still had. In response to Ed’s query if the book was the Bible, Sara threw her head back and laughed, ‘No’, she said ‘It was The Coral Island by Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-1894), don’t you know it?’ Ed shook his head and Sara told him that it was about three boys marooned on a South Sea island when the ship they were on was wrecked. ‘It is really good but I don’t want to lend it as it was Jimmy’s…’ Her voice dropped and her face clouded over. Ed asked her how they met and she replied that they both had attended St James School adding, ‘Where Jane goes.’ She went on to say that Jimmy was in the top class when she was old enough to go to the school and with a wistful smile, said that all the girls were in love with Jimmy. ‘He was handsome, kind and very clever,’ she said, proudly proclaiming that he won a scholarship to the County School that was then part of the Technical College in Ladywell. With a broad grin adding that ‘the whole school was given a day off in celebration!’
Afterwards, Jimmy had served his apprenticeship in the offices of South Eastern and Chatham Railway Company and they had met again, married and moved in with her mother-in-law, who had five rooms in a tenement on Church Street, where they still lived. Still wearing a proud grin Sara told Ed that was where Jane was born. ‘When Jimmy left for the Front,’ she said angrily, ‘they offered the landlord more rent money than we could afford, so we had to move out of three of the rooms.’ With less space Sara’s sister-in-law, her husband and children had moved to a tenement on Seven Star Street. Adding that it was in the Pier District near Admiralty Pier.
Sara then told the American that she wanted to stay in Church Street as it was close to St James’ school and just across Pencester Gardens to where she worked at the electricity station. Ed asked her about her job and Sara told him that since leaving school that had worked in the offices until she was pregnant with Jane. After the outbreak of War, when male workers had left for the Front, she was asked to go back and at first just worked in the offices. As more men left, the women had to work shifts and do all sorts of heavy manual jobs adding that this coming evening she would be, ‘going on at 6 o’clock and spending most of the night coal heaving and shovelling to make electricity for the trams tomorrow morning!’ Laughing at the same time as flexing her arms to show the muscles.
Jane left the couple to join her school friends and watching her scampering off, Sara told Ed that Jimmy had chosen her name after the author Jane Austin (1775-1817). ‘Jane Austin’s brother,’ she said, ‘Changed his surname in order to inherit Godmersham Park, near Chilham. Every summer, we would take the train to Canterbury and cross to the other station and take the train to Chilham. From there we would walk to the grand house at Godmersham Park.’ As an engagement present Jimmy had given Sara a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and this she still treasured keeping it in a special biscuit tin where she kept all her memories. ‘Along with the coronation medals?’ he asked with a grin. Sara gave him a beautiful smile and her blue eyes shone, ‘Along with the George V’s coronation medals, The Coral Island and other good, and not so good memories.’
Looking wistfully out to sea, her voice dropped, ‘When the War broke out, Jimmy, along with his friends at work, joined up. They all thought that it would be over by Christmas!’ She quickly wiped away a tear, took a deep breath and said almost aggressively, ‘Most are now dead! Jimmy was killed at Passchendaele.’ Ed hesitated before he asked Sara if she felt resentment towards the Belgians for not being there to defend their own country. ‘At first yes. Then I remember what Jimmy had said on his last leave before going to Belgium. It’s not a big country, it doesn’t have a lot of people, about 7½ million at the start of the War, England’s population was 36million! They lost over 3,500 men in just two battles that year and 15,000 were injured. When the Germans walked in they killed a further 6,453 in the first week – men, women and children. We have been short of food but they have been deliberately starved.’ She looked directly at Ed and said, ‘You are an American, you don’t understand what a King means to his people. King Albert also recognises that we British are his neighbours and that we are trying to help his people. In return King Albert has made it difficult for the Germans to reach the coast, cross the Channel and invade us. The Belgians opened the sluices flooding large tracts of the country. Back in 1914 we had to prepare for invasion but with that action the Belgians helped to take that fear away, for now. Does that answer your question?’ Ed nodded.
‘Just before Christmas a friend of Jimmy’s called. They both came from Dover, both were in Flanders but in different Regiments and he was an Officer. Jimmy was a sergeant and occasionally he worked with the Officer going out into no man’s land at night to collect… but they both loved writing.’ Sara told Ed that the Officer had given her two poems, ‘Written on official army paper! One was signed by Jimmy and was about Jane and I, the other was written by the Officer and I asked him to sign it.’ She said that she could barely read his name as is hand was shaking so much, ‘But he had said that his name was Edward Aldington and the poem was about the gruesome job they did at night in no man’s land.’ She shivered, took a deep breath and asked Ed about himself.
He told her that he won a place at the State University and on graduation returned to his hometown in the Midwest where he taught science to seniors. That he became engaged to a girl he had known since childhood but that he was expecting a ‘Dear John’ letter any day! ‘She didn’t fancy being a teacher’s wife and wanted something better, she had stopped writing before Thanksgiving Day.’ Ed went on to say that he had joined up on the day President Wilson announced that the US had declared war on Germany and was sent to Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas.
Although it became the major airfield for new recruits, when Ed arrived Kelly Field was exactly that, a huge cotton field that had been commandeered to establish a training aerodrome. ‘Our tents arrived about two days later and we were designated as 1st Company G Kelly Field! A real first!’ There the men underwent basic training at the same time as constructing the camp, ‘Our uniforms didn’t arrive for another six weeks, so we only had the clothes we stood up in and had brought with us. Besides learning how to march and so on, we were doing heavy manual work in hot weather. There were no washing facilities and the sanitary arrangements were poor, did we smell!’ Eventually facilities were constructed and working, then the uniforms arrived and on the 25 July the Company looking clean and smart, was redesignated the 34 Aero Squadron. ‘It was then that training for duty overseas really began!’
In August 1917 the 34 Aero Squadron, consisting of 200men, took a circuitous route across America to Hoboken, New Jersey, on the opposite side of the Hudson River to New York. There they boarded the Baltic, a former White Star Liner that had been commandeered for War service. They sailed north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where the ship was held until there were sufficient numbers of ships to make a convoy. Destroyers then escorted them across the Atlantic. ‘We left Halifax on 5 September and although it was a bit rough, all seemed well until the night of 14 September when a destroyer fired two red rockets. This we knew meant that we were likely to come under attack by a submarine and immediately the ship suddenly turned and I landed flat on my belly on the deck! Then there was an explosion and the ship shuddered.’ There were 5 long blasts on the Baltic’s whistle and the soldiers immediately went to their designated lifeboat in preparation to abandon ship. The lifeboats were not launched for although a torpedo had struck the ship the captain announced that it was a glancing blow. The emergency pumps dealt with the damage. The ship had been scheduled to dock at Southampton, but due to the damage they went to Liverpool and transported by rail to Southampton. After resting, the 34 Aero Squadron were told that they would be undergoing aircraft training with the RFC.
The men were then split into groups and sent to various training schools in England. Ed was sent to Swingate along with 19 other men and although their capabilities had been assessed at Kelly Field, they had to undergo further assessments and interviews. After a couple of weeks, Ed was informed that he had been chosen to train as an airman and was sent to the Central Flying School, at Upavon, Wiltshire, and then returned to Swingate to complete the scheduled flying hours. The 34th Aero Squadron was the first American unit to completely train in England. Before going to Upavon, Ed had written to his fiancée giving her the good news but when she eventually replied she said, ‘There is money to be made and good prospects working for big companies in New York or even in the State capital. Ed pursed his lips and told Sara, ‘That wasn’t for me, I enjoy teaching and the thought of flying aeroplanes was … well.’ He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
Ed told Sara that in December, a couple of weeks after the Thanksgiving party lunch that Jane had attended, the Squadron reassembled in Winchester in preparation for being sent to France. As a Second Lieutenant, he was about to board the ship when Ed was told by one of the commanding officers that he was to return to Swingate that day and was given a special railway pass. On arrival, Ed was reassigned as a teacher of wireless and electromagnetic waves. ‘Have you met Signor Marconi?’ asked Jane, who had joined Ed and her mother. Ed replied that he had not but that he had met two of the British wireless pioneers, Majors Hugh Dowding and Charles Prince, to which Jane responded by saying that, ‘Both of them carried out experiments at Swingate!’ Ed was impressed and at the request of both mother and daughter, told them that communication was fundamental in defence and that this could be either non-electrical such as carrier pigeons and dispatch riders. ‘These,’ Ed said, ‘are used alongside and sometimes interchangeably with telephones and wireless telegraphy, and that was what I teach!’
The electric telegraph, Ed told Sara and Jane, ‘Sends an electric current to a receiving station. When the sender presses on the telegraph key they interrupt the current creating an audible pulse that is heard at the receiving station.’ ‘Morse Code’ said Jane. Ed smiled and acknowledged her. He then went on to say that Morse Code was used, particularly in contacting the Front Line and that the telephone had developed out of telegraphy. ‘That telephone converts sound into electronic signals suitable for transmission, usually by cables over long distances, and replays those signals simultaneously to when they are sent! The wireless, or radio as we Americans call it, since the outbreak of War has involved thanks to people like Dowding and Prince,’ said Ed. ‘Oscillators, amplifiers and the electron tube have made reliable voice communication possible and the introduction of aerial portable transmitters means that squadrons of aeroplane pilots can be in touch with each other and also with those on the ground.’ Since learning to fly, Ed went on to say, after the War he planned to teach wireless and electromagnetic waves and also aerodynamics, aeronautic engineering, which he assists on courses at Swingate. They then parted, Sara and Jane went with the other mothers and children back to Dover and Ed and the Americans back to Swingate.
They were well used to the blackout, it had been in place in Dover since August 1915, the only town in England. This applied to homes, offices, factories, the military camps and Swingate as well as street lighting. As they arrived at their various destinations the evening sky over the Channel suddenly lit up. No one knew what to make of the bright lights for although they were at sea they were so powerful that Sara and Jane could easily read the numbers on their door. As night after night the bright lights on the Channel came on and it soon became common knowledge as to why.
The submarine warfare in the Atlantic had escalated during the autumn of 1917 and although contingencies had been made since early 1915 to stop them, a large number of German submarines were known to be still making use of the Channel route. Further, the number of air raids on the South-East Coast were increasing and in the weeks before Christmas there had been on average three a week. Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes (1872-1945) had been appointed, replacing Admiral Bacon, as the Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover on 31 December 1917. Prior to taking up the position Keyes had been working in the Operations Department of the Admiralty and introduced, on taking up his new post, new measures to improve the Dover Barrage.
The Barrage ran from the base of Abbots Cliff, on the west side of Dover, to Cap Gris Nez on the French coast and included two lines of manned ships and boats seven miles apart. The First Line had been in existence since 1915 and was mainly made up of drifters. Keyes innovation was that the little ships were to be lit by calcium flares said to be equal to 1,000.000 candlepower each and these were to remain on all night. It was these flares that were lighting up the streets of Dover and they remained, never subdued, until the end of the War. During that time, steel lightship type vessels replaced the drifters and they carried powerful searchlights. The Second Line of the Barrage, which Keyes introduced, became operational in early January 1918 and was made up of older destroyers, patrol boats, minesweepers and trawlers, all heavily armed and some with heavy howitzers.
Once Germany had built up their military strength on the Western Front they ensured that the Americans knew they would propose another peace plan. Supported by the other Central Powers and tentatively agreed by Russia and Bulgaria, it rested on the premise of ‘no annexations and no indemnities.’ This was regardless that Russia would be expected to surrender Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Courland and Livonia to German rule – Courland and Livonia are now part of Latvia. Further, although as part of the proposal Belgium, Serbia and Romania would not be annexed those countries would come under German control. The proposed peace plans were rejected by America and the Allies and in consequence Germany put forward another proposal. Peace, in this proposal, was on the basis of restoring territories to how things were in July 1914, leaving each side to bear the material loss and to run the countries as they saw fit. Again this was rejected with President Woodrow Wilson, at the end of December 1917, summing up the American and the Allies stance by saying that they would make peace ‘Only after autocracy has been shown the utter futility of its claims to the leadership of the modern world.’ In consequence there was anticipation of a great offensive on the Western Front by the Germans in the spring.
In August 1916, prior to entering the War, the American Congress had approved funds to build new battleships as part of a three-year programme to enable their naval force to face any rival on equal terms. When America entered the War the following April, they recognised that destroyers were more effective than battleships against submarines. However, their navy consisted of 47 miscellaneous ships and 73,000 naval men but no destroyers or trained officers and men to crew them. They therefore focused on countering the submarine attacks with smaller vessels and ensuring that American troops and supplies were continually transported safely to Britain, France, and Italy. Besides completing the few large capital ships that were in the process of being built, they restored all captured German liners for transportation use. For convoy protection they built SC-1 class submarine chasers. These were 100foot wooden ships designed by Albert Loring Swasey (1876-1956) and powered with three 220hp-petrol engines. They were armed with a 3inch Colt anti-aircraft gun on the bow, two machine guns midship and at the stern a depth charge thrower for attacking submerged submarines. Most were also fitted with hydrophones for detecting underwater submarines and mines. From that time to the end of the War the US increased the number of ships to 273 and the naval personnel to 300,000 and the first submarine chaser came into active service in July 1917.
The Germans continued to build up their war machine and they increased their aircraft production from 8,100 aeroplanes in 1916 to 19,400 in 1917. In response, the British War Office recommended almost doubling the size of the RFC to a total of 200 squadrons. To support the objective, Henderson and Trenchard made a presentation to the Cabinet with Trenchard citing from his treatise ‘The Employment of the Royal Flying Corps in Defence’. Stating, ‘Success was only possible through gaining and maintaining an overall ascendancy. That it could be achieved only by attacking and defending the enemy’s air forces. Even when the Army was forced temporarily on the defensive, the action of the RFC must always remain essentially offensive.’ The Cabinet endorsed the proposal and it was agreed that the majority of the new squadrons were to be equipped with bombers. An order was placed for 700 Airco DH.4s designed by Geoffrey de Havilland. These were a two-seater biplane day bomber fitted with a 375-hp Rolls-Royce Eagle engine. The Airco DH 4 had a 0.303 inch Vickers machine gun for the pilot and one 0.303 inch Lewis gun on a scarff ring mounting for the observer. It could also carry a pair of 230lb bombs or a maximum payload of four 112lb bombs. The aeroplane entered operational service in France with the RFC No 55 Squadron and a few were sent to Swingate for the Americans to try out.
Also sent to Swingate were a few Airco DH 9s single-engine biplane bombers developed from the DH 4s but with a newly styled fuselage and fitted with BHP/Galloway Adriatic engines. The engine, however, was found not as powerful as anticipated and also unreliable, so the aeroplane was redesigned and fitted with the more powerful and reliable American Liberty L-12 engine. The Americans stationed at Swingate, like Ed, were keen to have a standardised engine in all the aeroplanes to be used by them. With the help of the British, the Liberty engine evolved and once fitted the aeroplanes were renamed DH 9A. They were a favourite with both the British and the Americans stationed at Swingate and elsewhere. Of interest, the Queen Labotsibeni and Prince Malunge, Chief Regents of Swaziland now Eswatini, presented George V with £1,000 to buy an aeroplane. Out of the money, it was said, a DH 9A based at Swingate was bought!
At about the same time a few Bristol F.2B two-seat biplane fighters were also sent to Swingate. These were supposed to be for training and trial purposes as they had been equipped with a pioneering form of inter-aircraft radio communication but it made them very popular too. As the communication system was in its infancy the flight commander’s F.2B had a transmitter while the rest of the aeroplanes were equipped with receivers. Giving just a one way communication, nonetheless they enabled better coordination within squadrons and proved to be successful most notably during the Zeebrugge raid (see below). Their main problem was a trailing aerial, which had to be wound in before aerial combat could take place making their usefulness somewhat limited.
Parachutes had been available to balloonists from 1915 but were not available to pilots of heavier-than-air craft. In 1916 the Calthrop Guardian Angel parachute became available but was not officially adopted until 1918 by which time the Swingate was participating in the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s trials in the use of static-line parachutes.
Harold Sidney Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere (1868-1940), was appointed the first Secretary of State for the Air Force – from March 1918 re-titled Secretary of State for Air – on 3 January 1918. The Air Board was reconstituted as an Air Ministry to take over the Administration of the amalgamated naval and military air services. This was all in preparation of the foundation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918. David Henderson had been appointed the vice-president of the Air Council and it was expected that he would be appointed the first Chief of the Air Staff. However, on 18 January Trenchard was appointed and he was succeeded by Major General John Salmond (1881-1968) as General Officer Commanding of the RFC in France. On 1 April Henderson, the Father of the RAF, resigned from the Air Council saying that he wished to escape the atmosphere of intrigue. He spent, until October, serving on the Western Front. During the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) and the signing of the Versailles Treaty (28 June 1919) Henderson served as a military counsellor.
At that time, Britain had the largest and most efficient aircraft industry in the world and in November 1917 Brigadier General Benjamin Delahauf Foulois (1879-1967) was appointed Chief of Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. A notable ambitious, strong willed unpretentious officer, he had learned to fly in the first military planes purchased by the US from the Wright Brothers and had achieved many American military aviation ‘firsts.’ With regards to the training of American pilots in Britain he chose to adopt the British system. Back in 1914, he argued, the urgency in demand meant that pilots, undergoing training in Britain, were sent overseas when they reached the minimum efficiency standard plus five hours solo flying. But the British had learnt and by January 1918, pilots rarely went to the Front until they had undergone fifty hours solo flying. This Foulois believed to be correct and ordered the American trainee pilots to comply with the British practice, which contradicted Pershing’s orders. To gain further experience, the American pilots completing their training at Swingate joined the local squadrons and in that capacity were officially given the opportunity to fly different types of aircraft!
As already noted, four members of the No.20 Squadron that had trained at Swingate in 1916, were non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and during the course of the War two were awarded the Victoria Cross. The first was Thomas Mottershead, as discussed above, and the second was James McCudden of Gillingham, Kent. By the end of January 1918 Captain McCudden was part of No 56 Squadron and on the 30th of that month received the award given for ‘conspicuous bravery, exceptional perseverance, keenness and very high devotion to duty.’ The full citation stressed his responsible leadership as well as his personal triumphs. McCudden particular forte was the lone stalking of potential victims, which together with his many other attributes, established him as a unique all-rounder.
In the week of 21 January, the Germans reported that Ostend had been bombarded from the sea and both Germans and civilians, forced labour who were working for the Germans, were killed. During a British reconnaissance flight further east, between Blankenberge and Wenduine, two German planes, one of which was a new type of seaplane, attacked. Allied planes came to the rescue and the seaplane, with three men on board and the crew of the other plane were all killed. At about this time, the British Western Front was coming under heavy artillery attack near Ypres, Neuve Chapelle and Lens. Violent artillery duels took place north east of Ypres, both sides of the River Lys at La Bassée Canal and between Lens and St Quentin.
Then, over the weekend of 25-27 January the Allies launched an air offensive over the German battle lines in Belgium and over the coastal towns of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne and Douai in France. The attacks in Belgium were on railway sidings at Courtrai, billets at Roulers, on 5 large aerodromes near Ghent and 60tons of bombs on an aerodrome west of Tournai. During the attack, six German aeroplanes were brought down and the Allies lost one. The Allies offensives in France were hard fought aerial battles along the coast from Dunkirk to Boulogne and resulted in 25 enemy aircraft being brought down. Later it was reported that of the Allies activities Douglas Haig remarked that the ‘results were greatly in our favour!’
On Monday 28 January 1918 at 19.45hrs, 15 German planes in three groups were spotted flying towards London and immediately a flight of Home Defence Bristol F.2B prepared for take off from Swingate and attacked. 5 German aeroplanes managed to continue to London and killed 47 people injuring a further 169. They returned by following the South Eastern and Chatham Railway line as far as Shepherdswell when they turned east towards Belgium. Two pilot searchlights were spotted at sea guiding the German planes and the Swingate planes successfully attacked them while other British planes took on the German aircraft. A reporter described the aeroplanes taking off that night writing ‘… The great dim shapes came gliding with engines a-roar … Swinging round, as neatly as an iceboat on smooth ice where the last formalities were conducted. Then moving forward vague and monstrous in the darkness with quickening speed and rising boom of engines and propellers straight nose to the wind till imperceptibly each lifted off. ‘He’s Up’ someone said; and slowly the shape grew defined against the sky, then dimmed again and disappeared, and only the navigation lights twinkling vaguely showed where it rose. Swinging once more, went droning, directly, as a bee in defence … I saw 12 machines go out and 12 machines come safely home.’
The following night, raiders crossed the Channel at 00.50hrs and the Dover guns immediately went into action followed by attacks by Dover based aeroplanes. The aircraft turned homeward and the German airmen reported that they had dropped their bombs on Dover or as they named the area, ‘die Hölle ecke’ – the Hell corner!’ The report was correct but although they fell on the outskirts of the town including Swingate there were no reports of casualties.
The introduction of the second line of ships making up the Barrage and the calcium flares lighting up the Channel provoked the Germans to attack the Dover Patrol. This they did on the moonless night of 14 February when, under the command of Korvettenkapitän Oskar Heinecke (1878-1945) commander of Torpedo Boat Flotillas, eleven large destroyers arrived. It was just after 01.00 hour on at the top of high water, when the minefields could be safely passed over and quietly they moved towards the eastern side of the Barrage. Minutes before, a U-boat openly made its way into the eastern entrance of the Folkestone Gate and a group of drifters from the Front Line gave chase. Trawlers and a minesweeper from the Second Line soon after joined them. The U-boat turned on the British vessels and fired torpedoes before diving below the surface.
This was the signal Heinecke was waiting for and the destroyers attacked and sank or badly damaged the British boats and ships. Those lost were The Jeannie, Murray, Clover Bank, W Elliott, Cosmos, Silver Queen, Christina Craig, Veracity, James Pond, Newbury and the Violet May. The action had lasted for about an hour during which time firing could be heard continuously at Dover but only the boats from the Dover Patrol and aeroplanes from the RNAS on Marine Parade and Guston came. The military defence guns around Dover didn’t fire and not one aeroplane from the Home Defence squadrons came. The Dover Patrol boats brought back the bodies of the men that had been recovered and they were landed at Dover. In all 39 bodies were put into lorries and taken to Dover’s Market Hall. There, off-duty members of the Dover Patrol, including Mike, Kate’s husband, reverently carried them. Inside, sympathetic help was rendered by Dover’s Chief Police Constable Fox and his men and outside a large crowd of locals gathered, including Sara and her sister-in-law Kate. They helped to comfort the deceased’s men’s relatives. On Tuesday 19 February, the bodies of those men not taken away were buried in St James cemetery with full naval honours.
On Friday 15 February, in the space of 2minutes the town was bombarded with 22 shells, killing one child, injuring three others as well as a man and a woman. At 21.35hrs that night, before the enemy aircraft reached Dover, they dropped 23 heavy bombs, all one hundred weight each on St Margaret’s Bay to the east of Dover. They fell in a line from the Corner Cottage on the cliffs to the sports field. The French Convent of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1904, suffered severely and also Mr Elliff’s home and the nearby sports field. One bomb was dropped in a field close to the Bay Road blowing over a sentry box with the sentry inside. No one was killed or injured in the raid but aeroplanes and seaplanes from the RNAS and the RFC had gone up to meet the attackers which together with the abundant anti-aircraft fire ensured that the enemy flew off. One enemy machine fell into the sea off Dover.
At 00.03hours that night Dover was shelled from the sea, lasting between 3-4 minutes and a shell hit the roof of 3 and 4 Cowgate Hill and exploded in the bedroom where children were sleeping. Gertrude Boorman aged 13 years was killed and her brothers Willie aged 15 and Sidney aged 9 along with her sister Amelia aged 11 were injured. At the Infirmary in Dover Union Workhouse, Union Road now Coombe Valley Road, a patient was wounded. Aircraft at Swingate, buildings there and the nearby former Langdon Prison that had been converted into Naval barracks, all suffered considerable damage. Other properties damaged included the School House, Dover College; 7 Westmount Terrace; 3 Victoria Park; 100 Maison Dieu Road; 12 Maison Dieu Road and 14 East Cliff. Also Gills rag and bone stores, Peter Street; a shop in Lowther Road, Tower Hamlets; a house in Devonshire Road; two fell at the back of Dour Street, the Connaught Park Greenhouses and another in St Martin’s Churchyard, near Market Square.
On Saturday 16 February, a number of the Allies air squadrons were involved in severe fighting over the Front in Flanders and twenty-one German aircraft were brought down. Two more were brought down with anti-aircraft fire and the occupants were taken prisoners. The Allies lost five machines and after nightfall German aerodromes in Belgium were bombed. Later that night there was another attack on the drifters off Dover but this time land based gunfire covered the Dover Patrol vessels that went to the drifters assistance and the Home Defence aeroplanes were out in force supporting their RNAS colleagues. One of them fought off an intruder over Deal, and shortly after a large enemy aeroplane was seen plunging into the sea.
The debacle of the night of 14 February led to Courts of Inquiry and a Court-Martial with senior military officers being stood down and one being dismissed from the service. They had all been relieved of duty on the morning of 15 February and replaced before the end of the month with Colonel Frederick C Halahan (1880-1965) in charge of the RNAS units at Dover and Dunkirk, placed head of all squadrons directly attached to the Dover Patrol. From the transcripts Keyes had, apparently, on 14 February issued the order that gunfire should at once be opened on hostile vessels firing on the town, the Barrage or vessels of the Dover Patrol, without orders being necessary. The Home Defence squadrons duties included undertaking orders from the Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover, protecting the Barrage and the vessels of the Dover Patrol. That night, the military officers ‘Had shown unacceptable reluctance to acknowledge and recognise the authority of Vice Admiral Keyes as the Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover on the grounds that he was not part of the military. They were also unduly hesitant, in relation to the positions they held, to issue orders without going through the War Office in London and this being so, they were unduly hesitant in contacting the War Office in London in the middle of the night.’
On 3 March 1918 Admiral Rosslyn Erskine Wemyss, 1st Baron Wester Wemyss (1864-1933), the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, visited Dover to present awards to those who had taken part in the fight by the drifters against the German destroyers. Not long after, a small airfield opened in Reach Road, St Margaret’s – the area later became a holiday camp. From there, as part of the Home Defence, a flight of DH 9A aeroplanes carried out a constant anti-U- Boat watch as part of the Dover Patrol.
In early February it had been announced that a scheme for rationing meat bought from a butcher or a shop that sells meat, was to be introduced in some areas of Britain, including Dover. A system of coupons was introduced with a currency value for the purchase of meat and have a weight value for the purchase of poultry, game, rabbit and processed meats such as bacon and also for meals bought in cafes and restaurants. Based on the average value of meat a ration of about 1¼lb a week for an adult with half that amount for children. The buyer used cash to pay for the meat, which had an upper price limit the butcher could charge, plus the appropriate amount in coupons but they were only allowed to use three or four coupons a week. The rationing of meat trial proved a success and was introduced countrywide on 25 March. Rationing of sugar to 8oz per person per week was introduced on 1 January and the rationing of bread was being introduced in stages. In July 1918 ration books were introduced at about the same time as the rationing of butter, margarine, lard, and tea was introduced.
American troops deployed on the Western Front were succumbing to the ubiquitous Trench Foot. This was due to inadequate footwear to deal with the continual cold, wet and muddy conditions of the trenches. To combat this, Pershing demanded and supervised the creation of what became known as the ‘Pershing Boot’. This was based on Lanoe George Hawker’s fug-boots worn by the Allies aviators and had been adapted for their ground troops in 1915. Pershing boots were issued throughout the American army stationed in Europe. Financing the American war programme relied heavily on their government borrowing and by February 1918, there had been two issues of Government Bonds. The first was tentative as it was not in the American psyche to purchase such Bonds, but through what was named the Liberty Loan Scheme some £600million Bond certificates and saving stamps were sold. A second tranche was issued and £1000million worth of Bond certificates and saving stamps were sold. Out of this £800million was lent to the Allies at the same interest rates – 3½%. Due to the cost of employing, training, combatants as well purchasing armaments etc. the American government had to borrow or put up taxes and in the event, they opted for borrowing. Consequently interest rates by April 1918 had risen to 4½% and they were charging the Allies 5% on all borrowings including outstanding debt.
At the end of February a seventh British hospital ship had been sunk in twelve months. These were the:
Austurias, sunk by a torpedo on the night of 20-21 March 1917 with 31 medical service staff and crew killed, 12 missing and 39 injured.
Donegal, a former Midland Railway passenger ferry, torpedoed on the evening of 17 April 1917, twenty-nine of the wounded and twelve medical service staff and crew missing.
Dover Castle, a former Union-Castle Line vessel, torpedoed by U-boat UC-67 at 18.00hours in the Mediterranean but managed to pitch and roll towards a friendly port. Just prior to arrival at 20.30hours she was again torpedoed and sank with the loss of all on board.
Glenart Castle, formerly the Galician and belonging to the Union Castle Line before being requisitioned as the others had for war service, was torpedoed by U-boat UC-56 at 04.00hours on 25 February 1918 during heavy seas. She was in about the same place as the Rewa (see below) the mouth of the Bristol Channel. On board was a crew of 150 and 50 medical staff but she sank in 8minutes so only 32 survived.
Gloucester Castle, another Union-Castle Line torpedoed by UB-32 mid Channel during the night of 30-31 March 1917 all the wounded saved but many medical staff and crew missing.
Lanfranc, a former ocean liner carrying German injured prisoners of war torpedoed by UB-40 on the evening 17 April 1917. 19 medical service staff and crew and 15 German wounded missing, 152 wounded Germans were rescued by Dover Patrol vessels that came under attack from German aeroplanes on their return to Dover.
Rewa, previously a British India Steam Navigation Company vessel torpedoed in the evening on 4 January 1918 in about the same place as the Glenart Castle at the mouth of the Bristol Channel. All but three members of the crew were safely transferred to other vessels and taken to Swansea.
The German High Command saw Allied hospital ships as violating Article Four of the Hague Convention, saying that they were transporting able-bodied soldiers to the Fronts. They therefore ordered their submarine forces to target them as part of their ‘Unrestricted Submarine Warfare on Allied shipping.’ In all 21 Allies hospital ships were sunk by either torpedoes or mines during the War including the Anglia, off Dover. On 28 October 1915 and described in Swingate Part IIa – World War I Front Line Aerodrome – 1915.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution the Russian Army collapsed and the Germans took 6,000 officers and 57,000 men as prisoners. They amassed 2,600guns, over 5,000 machine guns and 5,000 motor vehicles from the abandoned army and negotiations ended with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918. The following day Romania also agreed to German peace terms and surrendered Dobrudja on the Black Sea to Bulgaria and the readjustment of the frontier between Romania and Hungary. Finland signed the Peace Treaty on 7 March, also fully accepting the German terms. These events resulted in the increase in the number of German troops being released from the Eastern Front.
General Erich von Ludendorff (1865-1937) was Hindenburg’s Eighth Army Chief of Staff after the outbreak of War. Following the successes at the Battle of Liège (4-16 August 1914) against Belgium and the Battle of Tannenberg (26-30 August) against Russia his ability as a strategist was recognised by Hindenburg. By 1918 Ludendorff was Hindenburg’s second in command and a key member of the German General Headquarters led by Kaiser Wilhelm II. There Ludendorff told the assembled senior High Command that as the Allied Forces would be exhausted after the Battles of Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai and the demoralising way that the French High Command had dealt with the mutiny in France, it was possible to secure victory.
Ludendorff’s strategy rested on defeating the British army before the Americans became actively involved and Ludendorff stated it would force the dispirited French to surrender. He then described his strategy and the German High Command agreed that the time was right for the final massive offensive on the Western Front, which they called Kaiserschlacht – the ‘Emperor’s Battle’. Victory, according to Ludendorff was going to be achieved by four successive offensives code-named Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck – collectively the Spring Offensive of 1918. It would be a flexible operation comprising two phases. The first phase was striking the Somme Front and the second in French Flanders. He reasoned that the offensive would best be achieved by a series of battles on the two different Fronts and the results would separate the French forces from the British. This would leave the much weakened British trying to defend the area around Ypres and would open the way to the Channel Ports. The first offensive, on the Somme Front, was to be Operation Michael (21 March to 5 April 1918).
Back in September 1917, at the Boulogne Conference, because of the disaster at Chemin des Dames Ridge when 20% of the French Army had been killed or injured, the French asked the British to take over part of the French Front Line in the region of the Somme. Against advice from the British General Staff, Lloyd George gave his consent. By that time the British Army had fewer men at its disposal than the same time the year before thus increasing the length of the Front to defend with far fewer men. Further, the area left by the French, an arc around Saint-Quentin, required substantial fortification improvements and the British had to wait until the ground began to thaw in late February 1918, before work started. Thirty British divisions were deployed along the 50mile Somme Front from the south at Bapaume to Saint-Quentin in the north, which included this arc and many were working on the fortification improvements.
As a preparation for the invasion of Britain the Germans, on clear nights, attacked London with squadrons of Gothas. They returned to the Continent by following the London and Chatham Railway line as far as Dover before crossing to Flanders. Although heavily fired upon from the ground and chased by Home Defence squadrons, they managed to drop bombs on the town and harbour. On one occasion bombs smashed the fronts of all the houses of Widred Road and made a large hole in the road damaging the water main causing a flood. Luckily there was no loss of life or serious injuries. Two heavy bombs fell together in the roadway in front of Gladstone Terrace, Priory Hill and again shattered the front of the houses and damaged the water mains. Six more bombs fell on Swingate in the neighbourhood of the airsheds and another machine dropped six bombs on St Margaret’s almost on top of the bomb holes made in the sports meadow in February. Across the Channel, night after night Calais and Boulogne were bombed and on some occasions bombs weighing more than a ton were dropped. After being damaged the François Auguste René Rodin (1840-1917) sculpture ‘Six Burghers of Calais’ was moved to the vaults of the Hôtel de Ville, Calais.
The Allies retaliated on 4 March by a squadron of RNAS seaplanes successfully bombing the Ostend seaplane sheds and an anti aircraft battery. But at Neuve Chapelle, held by the Portuguese, the Germans made a concerted attack and they also successfully attacked the French around Rheims and at Haucourt, north west of Verdun. The Allies aeroplanes were out in force and the American aviators were increasingly being attached to their squadrons. On the whole, the Americans were making a good impression but as they gained confidence an increasing number were less inclined to be team players. Nicknamed cowboys by some British squadron leaders they were also called Aces by others! Typically, American Sergeant Putman gained 3 victories between January and March 1918 while Hobart Amory Hare ‘Hobey’ Baker (1892-1918) had, in the same time, two victories to his credit (Reuter). Hobey was the first American star ice hockey player and also a football player, who had learned to fly before receiving a commission in the Signal Officers Reserve Corps. On arrival in Europe he spent time at Swingate and was then sent to France as a trainer to create aviators as quickly as possible. Realising that he would remain an instructor, in order to get to the Front, Hobey joined the former Lafayette Squadron and quickly earned the reputation of being an Ace.
In the meantime an army of seventy-four German divisions (approximately 900,000 men) had gradually taken up positions along the Somme Front. The German strategy had become increasingly sophisticated as the War progressed and the Spring Offensive was to put it to the test. There would be a preliminary bombardment focusing on machine gun posts and gun batteries close to the Front and communication centres such as the headquarters and railway stations at the rear. The initial bombardment would be brief but massive followed by experienced infantrymen that had been divided into small groups. Using the infiltration technique developed at Cambrai these men, given the name stoßtruppen – storm troopers, would exploit the breaches with mobile gun batteries. The less experienced men would follow through, wiping out any pockets of resistance. In the air the Jagdgeschwader would be equipped with light Halberstadt CL.II two-seater escort fighter/ ground attack aeroplanes and Hannover CL.III two seater ground attack aeroplanes.
By early 1918, divisions of American troops were arriving on the Western Front and Colonel William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), known affectionately as Billy, on 15 January 1918 was appointed Chief of the Air Service, I Corps First Army. He had arrived in Europe as an observer four days after the US declared War and by June 1917 had established an office for the American Air Service in Paris. At the end of that month, under Pershing, Mitchell was appointed the Chief of the Air Service. On 3 September 1917 the Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was created and although Mitchell was expected to be given the post, it went to Foulois who took over on 27 November 1917. This caused considerable resentment between the two men, compounded by Mitchell’s position being subordinate to that of Foulois. Further, Mitchell’s department was based at Toul, north east France and away from the Western Front and his post was designated as purely administrative to deal with meeting the needs of the American airmen and supporting troops.
Both Foulois and Mitchell were aviators but whereas Mitchell had complied with Pershing’s orders that competent experienced aviators should train the trainee aviators who should then go to the Front to amass their qualifying hours. Foulois took more notice of the US Senate who advocated that the cadets should amass their qualifying hours with the British and French squadrons away from the Front and combat areas. However, the British and French squadrons, even those away from the Front, such as the Channel and Home defences were involved in combat! Furthermore, Foulois ordered that the Americans involved in training US cadet aviators should have academic expertise as well as being competent pilots etc. Hence, many of those assigned to 34 Aero Squadron or similar squadrons, which both Ed and Hobey Baker had belonged to, ended up training the aviators that were to be sent to the Front.
In order to coordinate the air activities of the squadrons, Foulois reorganised the use of squadrons, based on their functions and gave greater emphasis on being part of the affiliated squadron. However, Pershing insisted that at the Front the American aviators were attached to the American ground forces. As the functions of the Allies squadrons was based on the function of the squadron, the type of aeroplanes, the airfield they operated from and the weather, this did not always work. In consequence there was a general lack of aviator co-ordination between the squadrons and the ground forces and in the air the less experienced aviators tended to tailgate the Allies aircraft in what appeared to be formation flying while the more experienced, as noted above, became relatively independent.
At the time of the German Spring ‘Michael’ Offensive, the American ground forces and aviators were attached to either the British or French armies. Between 21 March and 6 April three regiments of US Army engineers and four aero squadrons were seconded in support of the British 5th Army in northern France. A few days before at Toul a battalion of newly arrived American infantrymen were out on manoeuvres when a squadron of German aeroplanes flew over them. The men hit the ground as they had been taught and were expecting a rain of bullets. Instead, the German airmen threw what looked like tennis balls from the aeroplanes but when the balls hit the ground they burst. Within seconds the men realised that the balls had been filled with mustard gas.
Operation Michael started at about 04.00hours on Thursday 21 March when 5 large German destroyers and a flotilla of torpedo boats, attacked La Panne on the French Belgium border, slightly to the north, Bray Dunes and then Dunkirk. Ludendorff was looking at cutting off the supplies from the Ypres Salient along the coast down to Boulogne and use Calais as a base for the invasion of England. At Dunkirk the RNAS attached to the Dover Patrol had a large airfield. From there, aeroplanes flying at low altitudes, bombing aerodromes from which the German aeroplanes set out to bomb England and Allied shipping. In Command at Dunkirk was Geoffrey Rhodes Bromet (1891-1983) who had gained his early experience flying seaplanes in Dover and eventually rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshal. The German ships fired 200 shells into the town destroying much of Dunkirk and most of the aeroplanes and were about to leave when a light Franco-Britain division attached to the Dover Patrol arrived. It was composed of the French Bisson class destroyer Magon and the Bouclier class destroyers the Bouclier and the Capitaine Mehl together with the British Faulkner class Botha – Commander Roger L’E. M. Rede and the Miranda class Morris – Lieutenant Commander Percy Ralph Passawer Percival.
The five ships attacked and the Morris torpedoed one of the German destroyers while the Botha rammed and sank the German torpedo boat A-19. The Botha was then torpedoed in error by the French ship Capitaine Meh. Although the Botha’s main steam pipe was severed, Commander Rede managed to ram one of the other German destroyers with the Botha’s knife-edge bow, cutting the destroyer completely in half. One of the French ships caused an equal amount of damage to one of the other destroyers before just two German destroyers and a reduced flotilla of torpedo boats left the scene heading for Zeebrugger. However, en route, aeroplanes from the Channel defence squadrons together with Coastal motorboats attacked the German raiders. The numbers of torpedo boats were reduced even more. Later that day, British monitors bombarded Ostend and members of the Channel defence squadrons attacked minesweepers in the German Heligoland Bight at the mouth of the River Elbe on the North Sea, with machine guns. The next day Haig sent Keyes a message of congratulations for the Dunkirk success.
Wrongly assuming that all had gone well along the coast, at 04.45hours, fifty-eight German infantry divisions launched the first main attack of Operation Michael. This resulted in the Battle of Saint-Quentin (21-23 March), on what had previously been the French Front Line. The weather was in the Germans favour as the fog was thick that allowed them to move up unseen, taking the sixteen British divisions still working on strengthening it by complete surprise. The defences that the Fifth Army, with whom the American engineers were attached, had been completed. Nonetheless, it was the Fifth Army that had borne the brunt of the attack. Using to great effect their numerical superiority plus 3,532 trench mortars, chlorine, tear gases and smoke canisters, the Germans totally bombarded the trenches. At the rear, the Allied artillery was attacked with something like 6,473 guns and in the air the Jagdgeschwader, under the command of von Richthofen, supported the German soldiers on the ground with 700 aeroplanes. They also dropped rubber balls full of mustard gas, which had successfully been tried out on the American battalion at Toul a few days before.
Within five hours the Germans had fired over 3,500,000 shells in the biggest barrage of the war and created a wide breach in the British Front. There were approximately 300,000 casualties that day and several Divisions were totally annihilated including the Irish 16th, 36th and the 66th. Most of the Fifth Army were killed, injured or captured, including the Americans. Those units, which were not dislocated, made a fighting retreat through the increasing chaos, the congested roads and German artillery adding to the general panic. 250 British aircraft from 27 squadrons strafed and bombed the advancing German Army, disrupting its operations but 50 aircraft were lost. During the Battle, it was reported that the heavy cannonade used could be heard in Dover and shook window frames.
In the early hours of the night of Friday 22 and Saturday 23 March sirens woke the people of Paris, then all was quiet. At 07.30hours a shell hit Paris and every 20minutes thereafter until 14.30hours that Saturday afternoon, a succession of shells bombarded the French capital. This was far from the first time Paris had been attacked during the War, the first time was in the First Battle of the Marne back in September 1914. Since then Zeppelins regularly bombed the City and it had come under fire from long-range guns. On that Saturday the long intervals between each shell could not be explained. From the fragments found, the shell’s base was about 3inches thick and the walls were about 1½ inches thick while the aperture gun used was 9.5inches. The nearest German Front to Paris at that time was Anizy, about 70miles away and by the end of that day 15 people were dead and 15 injured. The gun that fired the shells was nicknamed by the British ‘Big Bertha’, after Frau Bertha von Bohlen und Halbach (1886-1957), the principal proprietor (1902-1943) of the Krupps weapons factory, in Essen, the Ruhr, Germany and was constructed of three artillery barrels welded together. It was located in the Basse Foret de Coucy, Picardy, 76 miles away from Paris and the German objective was to break the morale of the citizens. By the French, it became known as the Paris Gun. On 29 March a Big Bertha / Paris Gun shell exploded on Saint-Gervais church, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris killing 88 people.
Following violent attacks on the 24 March, Péronne and Ham, two adjacent crossing points on the River Somme, fell. The RFC carried out sorties at low altitudes and machine-gunned or bombed ground targets, driving the Germans back. Bapaume came under unceasing shelling during the First Battle of Bapaume on 24–25 March, and the town was evacuated. It fell along with Nesle, Guiscard, and Chauncey the following day. On the 25th there was heavy fighting between Péronne and Bapaume and the Germans reached Maricourt, their original Front in July 1916. The French, after heavy fighting, fell back from the region of Tergnier, south of Noyon, but they did manage to blow up bridges and hinder German attempts to cross the River Oise. By 26 March Amiens was under threat and 17 RAF Squadrons were forced to evacuate airfields as they were in danger of being overrun and the Allies losses were so high that the British were forced into a hurried retreat. This created, as envisaged by Ludendorff, a physical gap between the French and the British Armies. The British Front was north of the Somme and ran through Bray, Albert, Beaumont, Hamel, Puisieux, Ayette, Boiry, Henin, and Wancourt on the River Scarpe.
At Doullens, east of Abbeville and north of Amiens, on 26 March, ten senior Allied politicians and generals attended a conference. These included Lloyd George; Georges Eugène Benjamin Clemenceau (1841-1929) – the French Prime Minister (1917-1920; Winston Churchill – the British Minister of Munitions; and Generals Pétain, Foch, Haig and Sir Henry Hughes Wilson (1864-1922) the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At the meeting General Foch was given command of the Western Front and his strategy was agreed. This was to hold the Germans east of Amiens and to reinforce what remained of the Fifth Army. Finally, the French formations were to eventually take over large parts of the Front south of Amiens. At the German headquarters, on that same day, Ludendorff gave his armies the order to capture Amiens and advance towards Compiègne and Montdidier.
The massive losses of troops sustained by the British totally overwhelmed the supply of fresh replacements. As an emergency measure many battalions were combined with others in their Division to form temporary Composite Brigades and all available troops in Britain were mobilised. Most crossed the Channel from Dover and they were followed by the American contingency that had been trained in the British Isles, including most of those based at Swingate. The march of the long columns of Americans through the Dover streets was vividly recalled for many years to come. During this time the South Eastern and Chatham railway line between Dover and London via Canterbury was operating 24/7. And every few minutes another troop train or a special train arrived, disgorging its occupants at Dover Marine and Dover Priory Stations then turned round to go back to London to collect more troops. Due to a landslide on 19 December 1915, the Dover-London line via Folkestone was completely blocked and remained closed for the duration of the War. Further, Folkestone harbour was, and still is, much smaller than Dover’s, for these reasons Folkestone harbour was only occasionally used for troop movement at this time, regardless of what many modern commentators say. From March to the end of June 1918, some 623,000 troops embarked from Fortress Dover for the Western Front … and the men hoped and prayed they would see the White Cliffs of Dover again.
The Battle of Rosières, less than 20 miles from Amiens, was fought on 26 -27 March and the town of Albert was lost that night. The 27 March saw a defensive series of actions against German attacks and Bray was abandoned. The French lost the important communications centre of Montdidier on 27 March. In support of the Allies, Pershing ordered the American infantry and aero divisions that were up to muster to be ready for combat. They were the 6th, 12th and 14th Engineers and the 17th, 22nd and 148th Aero Squadrons. Foulois ordered the Aero Squadrons to comply with the orders issued to the British squadrons to which they were affiliated. The 17th Squadron was unique in that having been trained by the British in Canada, on arrival in Europe they were not attached to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps but to the RAF, hence they naturally complied. Although both the 22nd and the 148th Aero Squadrons were part of the ASSC they did work closely with the RAF. From 28 March all three squadrons were based at Fienvillers, Somme, from where they helped to defend the British Line and also build or repair airfields as the British Army returned following the retreat. The squadron leaders also followed Pershing’s orders and provided escort, reconnaissance and bombardment as required by the American ground operations and all their aeroplanes bore the US adopted national insignia of a red, blue and white roundel!
Having taken Albert, the Germans pushed up the River Ancre valley, Picardy. The River rose in the hamlet of Miraumont, near Albert, which had been completely destroyed in 1916, and entered the Somme at Corbie. The enemy was just 12 miles from Amiens and they had gained Étricourt-Manancourt, between Amiens and Compiègne from the French. The French had fought back, regaining some ground and managing to repulse further attacks on Lassigny and Noyon. The following day, Thursday 28 March, the Germans made attacks in the River Scarpe valley in which Arras, Douai, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux are situated before the River Scarpe becomes a southern tributary of the River Scheldt. This was a strategic geographic move as it brought them closer to the Channel ports. The long river Scheldt rises in northern France, runs through western Belgium near to Antwerp and western Holland entering the North Sea at Vlissingen (Flushing). Further, through a number of canals, including the Albert Canal, the Scheldt connects with the Rivers Meuse, Rhine and the Seine. The attack – First Battle of Arras, (28 March) – on that Thursday was to the east of Arras towards Vimy Ridge. It was successfully repulsed by the British, especially by aeroplanes belonging to the Channel defence squadrons. However, to the south, the Germans were making further progress towards Amiens and the following day they were between Albert and the River Avre – one of the principal tributaries of the Somme, 11 miles from Amiens.
In the meantime the Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions had been sent south from Belgium as reinforcement for the British in the Somme. This was just as Ludendorff had planned and it did weaken the British defence around Ypres – the Channel Ports were in striking distance. On arrival in the Somme the Australians were sent to Dernancourt to support the relatively vulnerable 35th Division and, if possible, try to slow down the German Offensive towards Amiens. There is good reason to believe that Germans were not aware of the arrival of Australians for at dawn on the foggy morning of 28 March they attacked. This was along a railway embankment between Albert and Dernancourt (the First Battle of Dernancourt 28 March – 5 April), which they knew was being defended by the 35th Division. Expecting a quick victory, instead the Germans met the full might of the Australians and were quickly repelled. By the afternoon heavy rain added to their misery! Following the victory, King George crossed the Channel from Dover and met some of the troops involved in the Battle. During the following week the Germans made several attempts to renew their offensive culminating in the Second Battle of Dernancourt on 5 April. Despite bitter fighting, including hand to hand, it resulted in the German capture of much of the forward sector of the Australian front line which ran along a railway line between Albert and Dernancourt.
To be continued …