Swingate Part IIIa – World War I Front Line Aerodrome January – March 1918

Continued from Swingate Part IIB – World War I Front Line Aerodrome

1918 January – March – Dover and will this war ever end?

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 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 the side folding overseas cap. Sara was wearing a plain black 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, Sara said that there were. ‘Nine thousand children’, emphasising her statement by opening her arms wide, ‘and we had assembled in Pencester Road. After singing ‘God save the King,we marched up Castle Hill to the Meadow.’ She then went on to describe the event, saying that the children were accompanied 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. 

St James School in the mid 19th century when it was a National School 19th cent. LS

St James School in the mid 19th century when it was a National School 19th cent. LS

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!’ 

Dover Electricity Works, Park Street. Dover Museum

Dover Electricity Works, Park Street. Dover Museum

Afterwards, Jimmy had served his apprenticeship in the offices of the 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.

During the War women, like Sara, worked as a coalheaver at power stations. Eveline Robinson

During the War women, like Sara, worked as a coalheaver at power stations. Eveline Robinson

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 she 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 to 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 me, the other was written by the Officer and I asked him to sign it.’ She said that she could barely read his name as his 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 as Jane came to join them, Sara asked Ed about himself. 

Kelly Field, Texas 1920. United States Air Force

Kelly Field, Texas 1920. United States Air Force

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. There 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 wasn’t any 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 200 men, 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 lifeboats 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 we went to Liverpool and were transported by rail to Southampton.’ After resting, the 34 Aero Squadron were told they would be undergoing aircraft training with the RFC.

34th Aero Squadron, 2nd Air Instructional Center, Tours Aerodrome, France, November 1917 Air Service, United States Army

34th Aero Squadron, 2nd Air Instructional Center, Tours Aerodrome, France, November 1917 Air Service, United States Army

‘We were then split into groups and sent to various training schools in England. I was sent to Swingate along with 19 other men based on our capabilities assessed at Kelly Field. Since arriving at Swingate, like the other guys, I had to undergo more assessments and interviews and then, on a fly sheet, pinned on the noticeboard, it said that I was to train as an airman and at the Central Flying School, at Upavon, Wiltshire. I was surprised as I am classed as coloured but, I went, took to flying like a bird and then returned to Swingate to complete my scheduled flying hours! Sara stood back and looked at Ed but it was Jane who said, ‘What do you mean by being coloured stopping you? There is a chappy from Elms Vale who was at school with us, who is much darker than you, and he is an Officer and a good one too, you Americans have funny ideas, haven’t you?‘  Ed pulled a face but declined to answer, instead he told Sara the 34th Aero Squadron was the first American unit to completely train in England and before going to Upavon he loved teaching but that now he loved flying too! 

Interior of training wire room showing equipment used. United States National Archives

Interior of training wire room showing equipment used. United States National Archives

As Jane ran round the couple, imitating an aeroplane, Ed, went on to say 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 he was told by one of the commanding officers that he was to return to Swingate immediately and was given a special railway pass. ‘I came back to be told that I was to teach  wireless and electromagnetic waves.‘ He laughed and Jane’s eyes lit up, ‘Have you met Signor Marconi?’ she asked. 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 here at Swingate! They came to our school and told us about them, when I grow up I am going to be a wireless operator!’ 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 or electrical such as telephones and wireless telegraphy, ‘and that is what I teach!’ 

Electricity & Radiography class, cadet driving stakes into the ground for one of the three ropes to guy the aerial pole. United States National Archives

Electricity & Radiography class, cadet driving stakes into the ground for one of the three ropes to guy the aerial pole. United States National Archives

Jane responded by saying that the electric telegraph,  ‘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 stationMorse Code’ said Jane. Ed smiled and acknowledged her understanding. 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. Jane looked at him quizzically and he responded by saying, ‘The telephone converts sound into electronic signals suitable for transmission, usually by cables over long distances, and replays those signals simultaneously to the receiver! The wireless, or radio as we Americans call it, since the outbreak of War has evolved thanks to people like Dowding and Prince,’ Adding. ‘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.’  He finished by saying that after the War, when he returned home, he planned to settle on the West Coast, where people are more tolerant and to teach radio and electromagnetic waves and also aerodynamics, aeronautic engineering. The latter two, he told his two listeners, were taught at Swingate and that 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.

Both Sara and Jane were used to the blackout, it had been in place in Dover since August 1915, the only town in England. Along with street lighting the blackout in Dover, also applied to homes, offices, factories and the military camps including Swingate. However, just as they were arriving home, the evening sky over the Channel suddenly lit up. Along with the other women and children making their way home, they stopped, looked at each other afraid and then hurried to their respective homes, quickly entered, closed and lock their doors behind them. This was the main topic of conversation the next day and as the event ocurred, night after night, 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. 

Auxiliary Patrol drifters and trawlers in Dover Harbour. Ships of the Great War the Merchant Navy Vol 3 1917-1918 Archibald Hurd

Auxiliary Patrol drifters and trawlers in Dover Harbour. Ships of the Great War the Merchant Navy Vol 3 1917-1918 Archibald Hurd

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.

 United States Navy submarine chaser SC 2 circa 1918. United States Navy

United States Navy submarine chaser SC 2 circa 1918. United States Navy

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 midships 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. 

Airco de Havilland DH9A. San Diego Air and Space Museum

Airco de Havilland DH9A. San Diego Air and Space Museum

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!

Two Bristol F2 Fighters. RAF.Mod.UK. Wikimedia

Two Bristol F2 Fighters. RAF.Mod.UK. Wikimedia

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. 

General David Henderson the Father of the RAF. Finn Air Publication 3003. HMSO.

General David Henderson the Father of the RAF. Finn Air Publication 3003. HMSO.

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.

Brigadier General Benjamin Delahauf Foulois (1879-1967)

Brigadier General Benjamin Delahauf Foulois (1879-1967)

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! 

 ace and Victoria Cross recipient James Thomas Byford McCudden (1895-1918) of Gillingham. Wikimedia

ace and Victoria Cross recipient James Thomas Byford McCudden (1895-1918) of Gillingham. Wikimedia

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 (in France) River Leie (in Belgium) at La Bassée Canal and between Lens and St Quentin.

Map of Western Belgium & North West France from The History of the European War by Francis J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill & Francis Trevelyan

Map of Western Belgium & North West France from The History of the European War by Francis J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill & Francis Trevelyan

Then, over the weekend of 25-27 January the Allies launched an air offensive over the German battle lines in Belgium and the coastal towns of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne and Douai near Lille 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 fighters prepared for take off from Swingate and attack. 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.  

Drifter at Work showing glass floats that were used in the Dover barrage. D Library

Drifter at Work showing glass floats that were used in the Dover barrage. D Library

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 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 (112 pounds) each on St Margaret’s Bay to the east of Dover. They fell in a line from the Corner Cottage (Granville road) on the cliffs to the sports field. The French Convent of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Droveway, 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 Bay Hill 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.

WWI Defence Artillery at Castle. The Officers Mess behind. Alan Sencicle

WWI Defence Artillery at Castle. The Officers Mess behind. Alan Sencicle

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 exploding in the bedroom where children were sleeping Gertrude Eveline Mavis Boorman (1905-1918) aged 13 years was killed and her brothers William Edward Boorman (1903-1944) aged 15 and Sidney Gordon Boorman aged 9 with her sister Amelia Ellen Boorman 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.  

Talavera Barracks, Aldershot, the principal place of detention prior to a Court Marshal. Lonlongtrail.co.uk

Talavera Barracks, Aldershot, the principal place of detention prior to a Court Marshal. Lonlongtrail.co.uk

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.’ 

St Margaret's Bay Holiday Camp - Reach Road. Dover Express July 2017

St Margaret’s Bay Holiday Camp – Reach Road. Dover Express July 2017

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 RAF base for personnel manning the long range radar station at Leathercote Point and following closure 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.

US soldier wearing Pershing Boots from WWI Notes of Verne Chaney Sr. US National Archives

US soldier wearing Pershing Boots from WWI Notes of Verne Chaney Sr. US National Archives

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 as 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) at 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.

March

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). Wikimedia

General Erich von Ludendorff (1865-1937). Wikimedia

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). 

Map of Operation Michael 1918 showing the arc around Saint-Quentin. E Ludendorff (1919) My War Memories, 1914–1918, Vol II, London Hutchinson

Map of Operation Michael 1918 showing the arc around Saint-Quentin. E Ludendorff (1919) My War Memories, 1914–1918, Vol II, London Hutchinson

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 at 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 Baupaume 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 Chatham and Dover 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 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.

Hobey Baker while a pilot from Emil R Salvini,'s book Hobey Baker American Legend.

Hobey Baker while a pilot from Emil R Salvini,’s book Hobey Baker American Legend.

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.

The 103rd Aero Squadron original complement included pilots from the disbanded Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps that were assigned to the Squadron on 18 February. In early March, using Spad VII fighters, and flying with the newly formed French Fourth Army, Groupe de Combat 21 of the Aéronautique Militaire. The Squadron recorded its first aerial victory on 11 March, this was by former Lafayette Escadrille pilot, First Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer (1894-1930), and thus became the first ace of an American unit in World War I. On 11 April the Squadron was attached to the French Sixth Army in the Rheims area.

 WWI - German Halberstadt CL.II bomb rack. Wikimedia

WWI – German Halberstadt CL.II bomb rack. Wikimedia

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.

Colonel William (Billy) Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936) USAF

Colonel William (Billy) Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936) USAF

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. However, 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, to which both Ed and Hobey Baker had belonged, 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.   

French destroyer Bouclier by Marius Bar (1862-1930). Wikimedia

French destroyer Bouclier by Marius Bar (1862-1930). Wikimedia

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 were 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. 

Haig's message of congratulations to Keyes on the success of the Dover Patrol at Dunkirk 22.03.1918

Haig’s message of congratulations to Keyes on the success of the Dover Patrol at Dunkirk 22.03.1918

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 Mehl. 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 remaining German destroyers and a reduced flotilla of torpedo boats left the scene heading for Zeebrugge. 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.  

German Infantry preparing for Battle of Saint-Quentin (21-23 March). Imperial War Museum

German Infantry preparing for Battle of Saint-Quentin (21-23 March). Imperial War Museum

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 allowing 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. 

This was the first taste of warfare on the Western Front for members of the American 22nd Aero Squadron, some of whom had undertaken advance training at Swingate and Guston before deployment in France. On arrival in France, the Squadron was divided into Flights and attached to RNAS units that soon after became part of the RAF. HQ, A and B Flights were initially assigned to RAF 206 Squadron and later A Flight was assigned to No. 4 Aviation Service Depot at Guînes for instruction and repair work. At the start of Operation Michael, B Flight were assigned to RAF 203 Squadron, a fighter squadron based on the Somme and flying Sopwith Camels. C Flight was assigned to RAF 202 Squadron flying Airco DH.4’s in the Amiens sector. During the Battle of St Quentin, a Flight B aviator was captured during the ground attack.

German ‘Big Bertha’ or 'Paris Gun', range 75miles. First used 23rd March 1918. G.P.A

German ‘Big Bertha’ or ‘Paris Gun’, range 75miles. First used 23rd March 1918. G.P.A

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. 

Extent of the Allies Retreat 27 March 1918. Times p7

Extent of the Allies Retreat 27 March 1918. Times p7

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. 

American Soldiers marching through Dover’s Market Square 1918. Dover Museum

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. 

US Army Air Roundel adopted national insignia

US Army Air Roundel adopted national insignia

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 (ASSC) 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. It was the 148th Aero Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight that had been ordered to Albert and then Bapaume. This was to join fighter/scout RAF 3 Squadron flying Sopwith Camels. They left on 20 March by rail but on reaching Bapaume they found that they were in the thick of a German artillery attack and the train backed up to Albert. From the railway station they were taken by truck to Albert aerodrome and started training on the Sopwith Camels. The Germans continued to advance and after a few days ‘B’ Flight were ordered to burn anything that would be of use to the enemy and then abandon the camp. 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.   

Battle of Dernancourt Lewis Gun Team April 1918. Diorama at the Australian War Memorial. Nick D 2017 Wikimedia

Battle of Dernancourt Lewis Gun Team April 1918. Diorama at the Australian War Memorial. Nick D 2017 Wikimedia

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 …

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
This entry was posted in 1918 January - March Will this war ever end?, Aviation, World War I. Bookmark the permalink.

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