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.