Swingate Part IIIb – World War I Front Line Aerodrome April 1918

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

1918 April –  Dover and a new enemy attacks

Royal Air Force - Notice of official designation signed by Air Minister Lord Rothermere on behalf of King George V. 07.03.1918 Times

Royal Air Force – Notice of official designation signed by Air Minister Lord Rothermere on behalf of King George V. 07.03.1918 Times

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed on 1 April 1918 by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service with the exception of lighter than air machines, which remained with the Admiralty. The RFC’s motto had been Per ardua ad astra – Through adversity to the stars – and this was adopted by the RAF and other Commonwealth air forces. For the remainder of the War the service personnel dress was khaki as worn in the army for all ranks after which it was to be of the same pattern but light blue. However, with the exception of officers that were entitled to special allowances, the officers had to buy their uniforms and therefore were allowed to wear the blue uniform immediately as a Mess kit. This was of the same pattern as the military officers’ uniform but with gold braid and the officers had to wear white shirts and collars, black ties and black boots or shoes. To differentiate pilots from observers, over the left breast pocket the pilots had Wings and RAF while observers had half-Wings with the letter ‘O’. 

The Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough became the Royal Aircraft Establishment, supplying aeroplanes to the RAF for the remainder of the War. This was the responsibility of the Ministry of Munitions, headed by Winston Churchill from 1917 to 1919. In April 1918, the RAF was in possession of more than 20,000 machines and came under the direct control of the Air Ministry. Geographically, the organisation was divided into five areas and each area was responsible for its own internal administration, sub-divided into training and operational groups. The third but separate component was the Royal Air Force Marine Craft Section that was formed on 11 April. At this time the Section was tasked with operating support vessels that had been transferred from the Royal Naval Air Service.

Lord Rothermere had been appointed Air Minister in December 1917, assigned to formulate and amalgamate the new service. Having successfully fulfilled his remit he resigned on 1 April due to ill health being replaced by William Douglas Weir, 1st Viscount Weir (1877-1959) as the Secretary of State for the new Royal Air Force. Weir was a member of the Glasgow (Cathcart) engineering firm G and J Weir Limited (these days the Weir Group) and had been the Scottish Director of Munitions in 1915-1916, followed by becoming the Director-General of Aircraft Production and Controller of Aeronautical supplies. On being given the post, Churchill told the House of Commons that Weir, as a Director of Munitions, had carried out a vast expansion in aircraft work, notably in the development of bombers. 

Handley Page O/100 1459 Le Tigre aeroplane. Library & Archives of Canada 1917

Handley Page O/100 1459 Le Tigre aeroplane. Library & Archives of Canada 1917

The aircraft manufacturing company was founded in 1909 by Frederick Handley Page (1885-1962), opening an aircraft factory at Cricklewood, north London in 1912. During WWI the company produced, particularly for the RNAS, a series of heavy bombers. These included, in 1915, the O/100 used for daylight bombing over the North Sea. On becoming vulnerable to fighter attacks, they were switched to night time operations. Flying out of East Kent and north French aerodromes the aeroplane was mainly used against German-occupied Belgian ports, railway targets and airfields. The much improved O/400, introduced in April 1918, developed out of the O/100, could carry 1,650-pound bombs that were aimed with the Drift Sight Mk 1A bombsight.

Major-General Frederick Hugh Sykes (1877-1954) wearing the new RAF Uniform. Wikimedia

Major-General Frederick Hugh Sykes (1877-1954) wearing the new RAF Uniform. Wikimedia

From January 1918, Trenchard had been the Chief of Air Staff but following a difference of opinion with Rothermere he resigned in March, only days before Rothermere himself resigned. Trenchard was replaced by Major-General Frederick Hugh Sykes, who back in May 1912 had been appointed the first Commander of the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps! On Weir taking up office he appointed Trenchard to a position that enabled him to play a leading role in air operations on the Western Front that included blanket bombing of German industrial targets using the new Handley Page O/400. On gaining the appointment Trenchard based his headquarters in France.  

Women that had previously been attached to either the RFC or the RNAS were transferred to the RAF with the same pay and conditions as they had previously received. Nicknamed ‘Penguinsbecause like the birds they did not fly, the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) consisted of officers, subordinate officers and members. Promotion to officers was from the ranks. The categories of employment were clerical, household, technical and general and they were divided into two types of service, mobile or immobile. The mobile members had to be prepared to go to any part of the United Kingdom or overseas, depending on the terms of their enrolment. It was mandatory that these members were boarded in RAF quarters. Alternatively, they could be immobile – living in their own homes and liable to service only in their own locality. No woman was considered for recruitment under the age of 18 and until 21years old they were automatically classed as immobile. 

Members of the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) on parade circa 1918. Imperial War Museum

Members of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) on parade circa 1918. Imperial War Museum

The first WRAFs were voluntarily transferred from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – WAACs and from the Navy’s Women’s Royal Naval Service – WRENs. Others were voluntarily transferred from the Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Women’s Legion. The Chief Superintendent of the new service was Lady Gertrude Crawford (1868-1937) and immediately there was a call for more recruits for the duration of the War, including 300 officers. The service lasted until 1920 but was revived again in 1939 as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and on 1 February 1949 was re-established on a regular footing taking up their original name – Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). From 1 April, 1918 all WAAC wireless operators were obliged to be transferred to the WRAF including those who had been manning the former coastguard station at Swingate as part of the Dover Patrol. Prior to the change, most of the Swingate wireless operators were boarded in ‘respectable households‘ in Dover. Following the change they were given the option of boarding at Swingate with the American nurses. All of them, regardless whether they were officers, subordinate officers or members. Like the American nurses, they could use the Officers’ Mess. Further, like the nurses, they were much sought after by the AEF and the RAF personnel on social occasions!

Operation Georgette (07-29 April 1918), was the second part of the German Spring Offensive, originally envisaged as Operation George. This was to be similar to Operation Michael but was downsized and renamed Georgette consisting of 7 phases on a narrow Front along the Lys River in Flanders. On 7 April the French withdrew from Oise and Coucy Forest with the Germans claiming the villages of Pierremande and Folembray and 2,000 prisoners. The following day the French increased the withdrawal of troops from Coucy Forest to Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique all in Hauts-de-France, north west France. That day the American 94th Aero Squadron was assigned to the Eighth French Army and became the first American squadron to take part in active combat on the Western Front. This was on 14 April when Lieutenants Douglas Campbell (1896-1990) and Alan Francis Winslow (1896-1933) were flying SPAD XIII’s. After a fight, Campbell shot down an enemy aircraft and Winslow forced another one down. Of note Campbell was the first American aviator flying in an American-trained air unit to achieve the status of ace. 

Battle of the Lys

Battles of the Lys April 1918

Battles of the Lys April 1918

On 9 April, Ludendorff launched what became known as the Fourth Battle of Flanders (9–29 April 1918) or the Battle of the Lys. The objective was to break through the Allied Front just south of the French/Belgium border and to advance westwards to the North Sea. The first part of the offensive was to take the French city of Hazebrouck in the arrondissement of Dunkirk, an important railway junction that linked Lille to Calais and Dunkirk. The whole offensive was the brainchild of the German Army Group Commander Field Marshal Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, with the aim of cutting off the British Second Army that was holding the Front north of Lys Valley, from the British First Army, which was holding the line in Artois.

The planning and execution of the offensive was similar to that of Operation Michael with Ludendorff assigning 46 divisions and putting great emphasis on the use of Stoßtruppen – storm troopers. The Battles included:
Battle of Éstaires 9 – 11 April
Battle of Messines 10 – 11 April
Battle of Hazebrouck 12 – 15 April
Battle of Bailleul 13 – 15 April
Battle of Merckem 17 April
Battle of Kemmel 17 – 19 April
Battle of Béthune 18 April
Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux 24-27 April
Second Battle of Kemmel 25 – 26 April
Battle of the Scherpenberg 29 April

Battle of Éstaires, 9 – 11 April
The first phase of the Georgette Offensive was at Éstaires, southwest of Armentiéres on the present D945. This actually started on Sunday evening 7 April and the Germans attacked what they perceived as a weak section of the British sector. Held by the 20,000 strong Portuguese Second Division they were flanked by the British 40th Division and 55th Division between Armentiéres and La Bassée, on a Front of nearly 10miles. The Germans had declared War on Portugal in 1916 following which the country raised an expeditionary force of about 55,000 soldiers. Up until the winter of 1917/18 the Portuguese had fought hard and bravely but with about a tenth of their manpower killed or returned home injured, the force was much depleted. Then in December there had been a change in government that questioned Portuguese involvement in the War. Officers were invited to return home without facing disciplinary charges and replacement troops did not arrive. On 2 March those left had faced a fierce German attack at Chamigny and Neuve-Chapelle a week later. At Neuve-Chapelle they had withstood by successfully launching a counter attack but the Germans knew they were very tired and assumed that the Portuguese would not be able to stand up to an army of about 100,000 men.

Battle of Éstaires April 1918 Portuguese Loading Stokes Mortar. H W Wilson Great War

Battle of Éstaires April 1918 Portuguese Loading Stokes Mortar. H W Wilson Great War

Along with the British at the Battle of Éstaires were about 500 Americans. These included troops of the 16th Engineers and the 1st Gas Regiment. The latter evolved from the 30th Engineering Regiment and on the Western Front worked closely with the British Special (Chemical Brigade). These troops were trained in using Livens projectors and Stokes mortars and they did. The latter were smoothbore, muzzle loading 3-inch trench mortars designed by Sir William Stokes (1869-1927) having a lightweight bipod mount for high angled fire. The projectile was a sort of bomb with a modified hand grenade fuse on the front. When it was dropped into the tube, an impact sensitive primer made contact with a firing pin at the base of the tube. This ignited the propellant charged base and launched the bomb towards the target. An impact fuse on reaching the target detonated the warhead itself.

28th Aero Squadron NCOs 18.11.1918 Foucaucourt Airodrome, France with camp mascot dog on a machine gun. Air Service, United States Army

28th Aero Squadron NCOs 18.11.1918 Foucaucourt Airodrome, France with camp mascot dog on a machine gun. Air Service, United States Army

In the air, the American air force companies aiding the defence included the 28th Aero Squadron that had formed in June 1917. They had been attached to the Royal Flying Corps for training since August that year and had arrived at Le Havre on 17 March where they were split into four Flights. ‘Headquarters’ Flight and  ‘A’ Flight were sent to join RAF 57 squadron, a flying training squadron, at Sainte-Marie-Cappel, in the arrondissement of Dunkirk close to the border with Belgium. They were then transferred to RAF 20 Squadron, a fighter-reconnaissance unit, which like many of the airmen in RAF 40 Bomber Squadron had undertaken training at Swingate. They were equipped with Bristol F.2.aeroplanes. ‘B’ Flight joined RFC 18 Squadron at Trézennes, south of Aire-sur-la-Lys in the Pas de Calais and on 7 April joined RAF 40 Bomber Squadron. However, the following day, due to the German onslaught, they retreated to Béthune-Labussière airfield adjacent to the coal-mining town of Bruay-la-Buissière also in the Pas-de-Calais. Further south with the British First Army, ‘C’ Flight were attached to RAF 25 Squadron a fighter-reconnaissance unit based at Villers-Bretonneux, Picardy about 12 miles east of Amiens. There, that day, the Germans successfully attacked the French at Hangard on the Amiens Front. In Flanders, due to bad weather the Headquarters, A and B flights of the 28th Aero Squadron were only able to undertake restricted flying. 

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas Battle of Éstaires April 1918. Thomas Keith Aitken IWM

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas Battle of Éstaires April 1918. Thomas Keith Aitken IWM

By 11 September, after the continual heavy fighting, 400 of the Portuguese were dead and 6,500 were prisoners of war. To the north, the British 40th Division, like the Portuguese, collapsed under the onslaught. To the south the British 55th (West Lancashire) Division did manage to hold on but many were gassed. Although halted by other British forces, the Germans had broken through just over 9miles of the Front, pushing the Allies Front back 6miles, burning the town of Éstaires and taking Steenwerck and Armentiéres.

Battle of Messines, 10 – 11 April 

 Clearing Station of the injured Spring Offensive 1918. Tom Robinson

Clearing Station of the injured Spring Offensive 1918. Tom Robinson

The onslaught continued in Belgium as the German fought to retake Messines, south of Ypres close to French border and also called Mesen on the present N365. Prior to the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, the Allies had successfully taken the town but this time the Germans successfully broke through the Allies 4mile Front and advanced 2½ miles. Messines, Messines Ridge, Wytschaete and Méteren were all lost. The Germans claimed that they had taken 6,000 prisoners and 100 guns. There was a general feeling of hopelessness in the ranks of the Allies so Haig issued the Order:

‘With Our Backs Against The Wall We Must Fight On To The End!

Implicit in the Order was a two prong appeal, first to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George and secondly to General Ferdinand Foch, who was appointed Generalissimo of the Allied Armies in France a few days later on 16 April. To Lloyd George, Haig appealed for more resources but because the US had increased their interest rates and the money borrowed plus interest was escalating the British National Debt, made the Prime Minister wary, especially after the Battle of Passchendaele. While General Foch, refused to commit the reserves of men that he was building up in anticipation of the Allies seizing the initiative.

Thursday 11 April was the lowest point in the whole War for the British troops, so Haig sent a letter to all ranks of the British forces in France. In this he said that ‘Despite (the Germans) throwing 106 Divisions into the battle … a reckless sacrifice of human life as yet has made little progress towards his goals… there is no other course but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. ‘There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one must fight on to the end.’

A copy of Haig's hand written letter that was then typed and sent to the men of all ranks 11 April 1918. Tom Robinson

A copy of Haig’s hand written letter that was then typed and sent to the men of all ranks 11 April 1918. Tom Robinson

Concerns over the possibility of Britain being invaded led Brigadier-General Bickford, who had commanded Dover Garrison since August 1915, to fear the worst. In discussion with both Keyes and Dover’s Mayor Edwin Farley, it was decided that active steps in dealing with such an emergency the town should be prepared for evacuation. Alfred Charles Leney (1860-1953), the owner of the large Phoenix Brewery that had taken an active part in keeping the locals aware of what was happening, was appointed Evacuation Officer in charge. After several meetings of an Emergency Committee that included Chief Police Constable Fox, they decided to divide the town into ten districts and every horse, pony, donkey and vehicle should be ready to be utilised. A schedule was drawn up and Fox informed the owners that if an emergency was called, they were to be taken to the designated assembly point for allocation. To the general public the ten districts were defined and Notices were issued stating:

NOTICE

The inhabitants of Dover are informed that under Military orders they are to 

EVACUATE THE TOWN IMMEDIATELY

Evacuation Notice issued in Dover April 1918 During the German Spring Offensive.

Evacuation Notice issued in Dover April 1918 During the German Spring Offensive.

All civilians residing in the districts described or the annexed streets, must meet at the Place of Assembly, and there await orders to leave for the country together, and foot vehicles will, as far as possible, be provided for those unable to walk. Each person must carry warm clothing, and food and drink for twelve hours. Mr. A. C. Leney will act as Evacuation Officer with headquarters at the Town Hall.

The Districts were:

District 1 – the whole of the Pier District to the Prince Imperial Hotel. Place of assembly near the Packet Yard. 

District 2 – Snargate Street, Commercial Quay, Northampton Street, Waterloo Crescent, Esplanade, New Bridge, Bench Street, King Street, Cannon Street and intermediate places. Place of assembly, Market Square.

District 3 – Marine Parade, East Cliff, Liverpool Street, Trevanion Street, Woolcomber Street, Townwall Street, St James’ Street, Castle Street, Laureston Place and intermediate places. Place of assembly, Castle Place. 

District 4 – Maison Dieu Road to Park Street, Harold Terrace, Leyburn Road, Godwyne Road, Park Street, Biggin Street, Effingham Crescent, Priory Street, Worthington Street, Folkestone Road to the Railway Bridge and all intermediate places. Place of assembly, Pencester Road.

District 5 – Military Hill, Durham Hill, Adrian Street, Chapel Place, Queen Street, York Street, Queen’s Gardens and all intermediate places. Place of assembly Saxon Street.

District 6 – All Folkestone Road beyond Railway Bridge. Place of assembly, Elms Vale Road.

District 7 – All streets east of High Street and London Road as far as Beaconsfield Road. Place of assembly, Charlton Green. 

District 8 – Priory Hill and Tower Hamlets. Place of Assembly East Street.

District 9 – All Buckland Avenue beyond Beaconsfield Avenue. Place of assembly Crabble Athletic Ground.

District 10 – River. Place of assembly was the Railway Bell Hotel, Kearsney

Battle of Hazebrouck, 12 – 15 April 

Map showing the situation on the Western Front 12 April. London Times

Map showing the situation on the Western Front 12 April. London Times

The ink had hardly dried on Haig’s letter when the Germans launched their next assault on the Western Front, this time to gain Hazebrouck. The Germans had entered Armentiéres on Thursday 11 April and the next day successfully attacked and captured nearby Merville. During which time the 1st Australian Division had arrived as a matter of urgency and set up defensive positions. Just after midnight on 13 April a company of German stoßtruppen attacked the area defended by the Australian 8th Battalion headed by Lieutenant Ivon Murdoch (1892-1964), the uncle of media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. The Australians were ready, killing 21 stoßtruppen and capturing five machine guns. Nonetheless, other stoßtruppen attacked the remaining Australian defences and the British Royal Field Artillery when they arrived during that night. 

The attack had not let up when, at 06.30hours the next morning, the German artillery barrage began. This was followed by the German infantry marching into Hazebrouck. Although the Germans came under heavy fire from the Australians, the British as well as Australian RAF squadrons and attached American squadrons such as Flight ‘B’ of the American 28th Aero Squadron, countless waves of Germans kept on coming. The defences remained strong and the fighting did not let up. During this time the aeroplane squadrons brought down forty-nine German planes and drove down twenty-five out of control aeroplanes. The 1st Australian Battalion then took up positions in the low lying forest of Nieppe close to the Belgium border south of Ypres, to block further German advances towards Hazebrouck.

Battle of Bailleul, 13 – 15 April and the First Battle of Kemmel 17 April
The following day, the French arrived along with a number of other units including the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company and the 78th Chinese Labour battalion. They secured Hazebrouck defences. Of interest, Hazebrouck is twinned with Faversham, a Cinque Port Limb of Dover. Meanwhile the Germans turned their attention on the village of Bailleul, about 7½miles west of Armentiéres. The ensuing Battle was fierce and the village was captured with heavy losses and the Germans made another attempt to capture Hazebrouck but on obvious probable failure, withdrew. In Belgium they took Passchendaele on Tuesday 16 April but the following day, the British were, at the First Battle of Kemmel (17 April) successful in repelling a German attack on the high ground of the Kemmelberg south east of Ypres near the French/Belgium border.

Battle of Merckem, 17 April and the Battle of Béthune 18 April

British 9.2inch railway gun firing near Battle of Béthune on Wednesday 18 April 1918. IWM.jpg

British 9.2inch railway gun firing near Battle of Béthune on Wednesday 18 April 1918. IWM.jpg

The Germans launched a heavy attack from their stronghold in the Houthulst Forest on Merckem, north of Ypres on 17 April against the Belgium Army but they were defeated. However they did manage to capture and hold the adjacent tiny village of Kippe but by nightfall were forced out by counter-attacks. To the south, they attacked Béthune , south east of Armentiéres. They flattened the town centre with heavy shelling but were successfully repulsed the next day. The boom of the heavy guns involved could be heard in Dover.

Meanwhile, by 12 April, the Germans were within light artillery range of Sainte-Marie-Cappel, close to the Belgium border and the English Channel, where ‘Headquarters’ Flight and  ‘A’ flight of the 28th Aero Squadron were based. ‘Headquarters’ Flight had been sent to Boisdinghem airfield near Saint-Omer to join RAF 206 Squadron, a bomber and reconnaissance unit specialising in photo reconnaissance in support of the British Second Army. The 206 Squadron were equipped with Airco DH 9A day bombers. RAF 98 Squadron, a day bombing unit was also equipped with Airco DH 9As and they were based at Alquines airfield about 18 miles east of Boulogne. They were joined by ‘A’ Flight and on the 15 April by ‘Headquarters’ Flight. From there the British and American squadrons supported their colleagues involved in the Battle of the Lys. 

Airco de Haviland DH9A. San Diego Air & Space Museum

Airco de Haviland DH9A. San Diego Air & Space Museum

Because of their location near the English Channel, the Squadrons were also subject to Fortress Dover orders. Typically on 12 April, when the weather was good, there was a great concentration of Allies aeroplanes in the sector. Many of the low flying machines bombed and swept the roads, packed with German troops, with machine-gun fire. That day, 36 tons of bombs were dropped and over 110,000 rounds of ammunition fired. Formations of aeroplanes were also flying at higher altitudes engaging numerous enemy aeroplanes while other allied aeroplanes were reconnoitring the battle area and taking a very large number of photographs. After dark, the night-bombers carried on where their day colleagues left off with another 12hours of incessant bombing of strategic places such as industrial buildings, airfields, ports and railway stations. The Don and Douai railway stations, two important railway junctions between Mézières in the Ardennes and Rheims and the roads leading to the battle front in the neighbourhood of Éstaires were all heavily bombed that night.

An American cemetery north of Toul, France 1918. Wooden crosses are grave markers, on the freshly-dug graves, with filled-in graves on the left. In the center are Troops completing the burials. Henry L. Graves. State Archives of North Carolina

An American cemetery north of Toul, France 1918. Wooden crosses are grave markers on the freshly-dug graves, with filled-in graves on the left. In the center are Troops completing the burials. Henry L. Graves. State Archives of North Carolina

At Dover, there was a constant stream of trains bringing troops to the port where they embarked on the ships to take them to the Front. Also, as a result of the Spring Offensive, there was a significant number of casualties being brought back to the port on ships then by train making the return journey to the British hinterland. Both the trains and ships needed constant air protection. On 18 April, the Germans fired 600 shells on Allies facilities along the coast between Dunkirk and Nieupoort as well as at cross Channel shipping. Some 100,000 shells were fired on Allied troops in and around Rheims, many of which were incendiary shells causing huge fires. Then on 20 April, 12,000 German stoßtruppen attacked American positions north west of Toul, the largest single operation against the Americans in the War. German aeroplanes firing machine guns joined in the attack and the heavy fighting lasted all day including hand to hand fighting. Eventually the Germans withdrew. 

Zeebrugge Raid 22-23 April

Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes (1872-1945). Doyle collection

Vice Admiral Sir Roger Keyes (1872-1945). Doyle collection

On Christmas Eve 1917 the British First Sea Lord, John Rushworth Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe (1859-1935), was dismissed from his post. A few days before, Vice-Admiral Keyes took up the post of Commander in Chief of Fortress Dover and before going, Jellicoe suggested to Keyes that a raid on the Zeebrugge/Ostend outlets from the Bruges U-boat base would block the constant attacks on Allied shipping. From the outset of the War, as we have seen, shipping in the Channel and the Atlantic had been under constant attack from U-boats and during the first three months of 1918, had led to the deaths by drowning of many US troops and the loss of vital supplies. Further, although the output of UK merchant shipping in the first three months of 1918 was 320,280tons, the amount lost to U-boats attacks was over twice as much at 687,526tons!

In the first three months of his new job, Keyes had formulated a detailed plan of action that centred on sinking block-ships in the canals leading to Bruges, where the German submarine pens were. This would prevent them getting out to wreak destruction. Keyes presented his thesis to Jellicoe’s successor, Admiral Wemyss, pointing out that there was one broad ship canal between Zeebrugge and Bruges that was 8 miles long and much favoured by the Germans, while in the 11 mile stretch between Ostend and Bruges there were a series of narrow canals.

Bruges docks and the approaches from Zeebrugge and Ostend Times history of the War ([1914]-21)

Bruges docks and the approaches from Zeebrugge and Ostend Times history of the War ([1914]-21)

Both Wemyss and Keyes were mindful that the German Spring Offensive was breaking the moral of Allies forces. To pull off an offensive that blocked the U-Boat outlets would not only put an end to the carnage the U-boats were causing but would boost the national and the Allies morale. Of the two outlets, Zeebrugge was the most attractive but the biggest drawback, learnt from the previous failed attacks, was that the port was protected from the North Sea storms by a wall or Mole. This stretched one and a half miles into the sea on which the Germans had erected a fearsome array of artillery protection. If Keyes was successful in blocking the Zeebrugge outlet and followed it by blocking the Ostend outlet this would trap all the U-boats in the canals leading to Bruges and would be an Allied coup especially if the first was on 23 April – St George’s Day, the patron Saint of England!

The preparations for the Zeebrugge Raid, as it became known, began on Thursday 11 April, when Dover Patrol monitors bombarded Zeebrugge and Ostend. The attack, the German’s were given to believe, was the British major counter-offensive on the German held Continental ports against their Spring Offensive. The flights involved in the Raid were directly responsible to Keyes and included the squadrons attached to the Dover Patrol; Home Defence 50, 59 and 69 Squadrons; seaplanes based at Mote Bulwark; aeroplanes based at Guston and Swingate including American instructors and trainees. There were also squadrons based in Allied airfields in northern France, on loan to Keyes for the operation. These include RAF 65 Squadron, and RAF 98 Squadron with the attachment from the American A’ flight of the 28th Aero Squadron. In day to day command of the Zeebrugge Raid, was Brigadier-General Charles Laverock Lambe (1875-1953) of the RAF 7th Brigade assisted by Captain Henry Crosby Halahan (1883-1918) who was in the day to day charge of the squadrons attached to the Dover Patrol and the Dunkirk RAF base.

Tirpitz Battery, south of Ostend, Belgium, 1918. Imperial War Museum

Tirpitz Battery, south of Ostend, Belgium, 1918. Imperial War Museum

On the days following the monitors’ attack the reconnaissance aircraft surveyed and photographed in detail the damage done by the monitors, the repairs that were being carried out and additional defence measures being erected. Meanwhile and up to the actual Zeebrugge Raid, RAF 65 Squadron carried out the main reconnaissance work. They had been formed at Wyton, near St. Ives, Cambridgeshire in August 1916 and were under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel James T Cull. From February they had been undertaking and analysing their photographs of the sea side of the Western Front and were loaned by Trenchard to Keyes for the Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids. They took hundreds of photographs of the Belgium coast under different states of the tide from which plans were drawn and models were constructed. The photographs also showed that along the twelve-mile stretch of coast between Ostend and Zeebrugge there were numerous batteries in each of which there were between one and four guns. In total there were 225 guns of which 135 were from 6inch to 15inch calibre with the latter having a range of up to 42,000yards – just under 24miles.

Baron Manfred Von Richthofen - the Red Baron (1892-1918). The Wartenberg Trust

Baron Manfred Von Richthofen – the Red Baron (1892-1918). The Wartenberg Trust

Sunday 21 April, at just before 11.00hours the most successful fighter pilot in the War was killed. Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, better known as the ‘Red Baron’ was shot down in a dogfight and his death was seen as a good omen by many of the airmen involved in the Zeebrugge Raid. This was near Vaux-sur-Somme where Richthofen was flying a red Fokker triplane over Morlancourt Ridge. He was pursuing Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid Reid ‘Wop’ May (1896-1952) of RAF No 209 squadron flying a Sopwith Camel. Between 16 February and 20 March 1918, the Squadron had been based at Dover’s Guston aerodrome. Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown (1893-1944) attempting to come to May’s rescue, at high speed, dived steeply and then climbed before going in for attack. Richthofen turned to avoid Brown when he was hit by a single .303 bullet penetrating his heart and lungs. Richthofen managed to make a rough landing before dying. Who actually fired that bullet is still the subject of debate and speculation.

During that Sunday, extra coastal motorboats and motor-launches arrived at the Port of Dover and from Deal a specially picked battalion of Marines arrived. That night a German U-boat, out of Zeebrugge, was creeping along the Channel and had reached the Folkestone Gate, when it was successfully torpedoed by the Dover Patrol. Two German officers and four men were rescued and brought to Dover as prisoners of war and another submariner, who had been killed, was taken to the town’s mortuary. The following morning, Monday 22 April, RAF No 65 Squadron reported that there were 35 torpedo boats and 30 submarines in the Bruges harbour and in Dover, it was reported that everything was ready for the Zeebrugge Raid.

 Vindictive on her return to Dover following Zeebrugge Raid. Doyle collection

Vindictive on her return to Dover following Zeebrugge Raid. Doyle collection

The major part of the maritime force was led by Keyes on his flagship Warwick and supported by the cruiser, Vindictive, 2 submarines, 34 motor-launches, 16 coastal motorboats and 10 assorted vessels. Commandeered Mersey ferries, Iris and Daffodil carried boarding parties, Sara’s sister-in-law’s husband Mike was on board the Iris. These towed the three un-set concrete-filled block-ships, the Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia. The flotilla left Dover at 16.00hours that day. In the air, they were to be supported by a number of flights led by squadrons from Guston and defended by RAF No 61 Fighter Squadron equipped with SE5s and under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel P F N Fellowes. The objective was to block the access to the sea from Zeebrugge with the concrete filled ships.

Graphic description of the Zeebrugge Raid in the Popular Science Magazine July 1918

Graphic description of the Zeebrugge Raid in the Popular Science Magazine July 1918

As the flotilla approached Zeebrugge, fog machines produced a thick mist which helped to provide cover and immediately on arrival, the maritime force went into action led by the seamen’s storming party. Except for a few hours during the night, when mist and rain made bombardment difficult, the Allies aeroplanes were unremitting. Besides defending the maritime operations and significantly damaging installations along the coast as well as opening up a 20yard gap in the Zeebrugge Mole at its inner end. The mariners fighting lasted all night and the tremendous gunfire could be heard in Dover. In the early morning the vessels which had taken part in the attack began to return to Dover and at 08.30hrs the battle scarred Vindictive arrived and went alongside the Admiralty Pier extension to land the boarding parties, the wounded and the dead. The wounded were taken in hospital trains, mainly to Chatham. The dead, many terribly mangled by shellfire, were taken to the Market Hall in naval lorries, Mike was one of those who accompanied them. Outside Sara and her sister-in-law Kate, helped to comfort the bereaved. 

Dover Society Plaque to those killed in the Zeebrugge Raid, St George's Day 1918, outside the present Museum in Market Square. Alan Sencicle

Dover Society Plaque to those killed in the Zeebrugge Raid, St George’s Day 1918, outside the present Museum in Market Square. Alan Sencicle

The operation had been successfully completed. One of the many commended was Wing Commander Frank Arthur Brock (1884-1918), of the fireworks manufacturing family, who invented an artificial fog machine that helped to provide the cover for the flotilla as it arrived at Zeebrugge. Sadly, he lost his life during the battle. The Raid is annually commemorated in Dover on 23 April – St George’s Day, the Patron Saint of England. Out of the 1,700 men who took part in the Raid, 200 were killed and 400 wounded. Of those killed, 156 were brought back to Dover’s Market Hall and Captain Halahan, the leader of the seamen’s storming party was buried at sea after a funeral service at St James’ Church. Following the service 66 of those who took part were buried at St James’ Cemetery, the remainder were buried in their hometowns. On the exterior wall of Dover Museum, in the Market Square, is a Dover Society plaque commemorating those who died during and following the Zeebrugge Raid.

 King Albert I of the Belgians and General Hubert Gough on the old Somme battlefield. Netherlands National Archives

King Albert I of the Belgians and General Hubert Gough on the old Somme battlefield. Netherlands National Archives

Although King Albert I, commander-in-chief of the Belgian Army, was reluctant to commit his tiny army to an Allied offensive, from when the Germans overran 90% of his country in 1914, he encouraged his subjects to help in other ways. For instance some 6,000 Belgian civilians were involved in intelligence gathering and communicating it to the Allied armies. Further, some 32,000 men from occupied Belgium were smuggled into the Ypres enclave to join the Belgian Army. While the Germans were busy trying to defend Zeebrugge from the British Raid, on the Belgium Front near Bixshoote (now Bikschote), the Belgium Army attacked and took 400 German prisoners. 

While Dover was preparing for the Zeebrugge Raid, Brigadier-General Bickford who commanded Dover Garrison retired and was replaced by Major-General Sir William Bernard Hickie (1865-1950) who had been a highly regarded commander of the 16th (Irish) Division from 1915 on the Western Front. In February 1918 he had been temporarily invalided home and as part of his convalescence, Hickie was sent to Fortress Dover in Command of the Garrison. He immediately set about preparing Dover against any reciprocal raids on the town. 

Zeebrugge Harbour showing sunken ships blocking the entrance. Doyle collection

Zeebrugge Harbour showing sunken ships blocking the entrance. Doyle collection

This, Hickie did in concert with Keyes and tried to involve Mayor Farley. However, Farley’s main concern was organising a national appeal for subscriptions to raise money for the widows and dependants of locals lost in the Zeebrugge Raid. Hickie pressured Farley to put the evacuation of the town into operation but the Mayor refused and the townsfolk took his side.  Following the attack back on 21 March when La Panne, Bray Dunes and Dunkirk were attacked by 5 large German destroyers and a flotilla of torpedo boats, Mayor Farley had made a national appeal for subscriptions for the widows and dependants of those lost on the Botha and the Morris. These were two of Dover destroyers belonging to the Dover Patrol that had successfully took on the German destroyers and torpedo boats.  With the money raised, Farley ensured that the relatives were well looked after.

WWI Villers-Bretonneux, south east of Amiens. The first time tanks fought against each other. April 1918. Rousset

Second  Battle of Villers-Bretonneux 24-27 April.
Although the Zeebrugge Raid was a success, the Germans continued advancing towards the Channel ports and the Military Authorities in Britain continued to fear the worst. The Germans also continued to advance around Amiens and the First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux (30 March – 5 April 1918), towards the end of Operation Michael, saw them attempting to capture this strategically important road and rail junction, south east of Amiens. The counter-attack by the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade and British troops late in the afternoon of 4 April restored the situation and halted the German advance on Amiens. Subsequently the town and the area surrounding was held by the British 8th Division. The Division was once a crack force of highly trained men but during Operation Michael it lost 250 officers and 4,700 men. In the two weeks following the First Battle of Villers-Bretonneux the Division was brought up to strength, but the newly arrived soldiers were teenagers with little combat training. This, the Germans knew and so launched another attack to capture Amiens on the morning of 24 April. Their armoury included three German A7V male tanks – tanks armed with cannons – and called ‘Baden I’, ‘Cyklop’ and ‘Gretchen’. The British had three Mark IV tanks, one of which was a male, the other two females, armed with machine-guns. These were augmented by several Whippet light tanks, an armoured fighting vehicle used for fast mobile assaults. Although both male and female tanks had been used in the first tank action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme Offensive on September 15, 1916 and Whippets since 1917, this was the first time in the War the different tanks had fought with each other.

Villers-Bretonneux April 1918 the three German A7V tanks with crew. Australian War Memorial Collection

Villers-Bretonneux April 1918 the three German A7V tanks with crew. Australian War Memorial Collection

The Battle was on an eight mile Front north of Villers-Bretonneux to the west bank of the River Avre where the British were forced to give up the village of Villers-Bretonneux by the evening of 24 April. The next day, the German newspapers carried the headline ‘the biggest and most successful tank action of the German army.’ But that day, the Australians arrived and with the British, launched a counter-attack. Villers-Bretonneux was recaptured on 25 April. The following day, with the supreme commander Field Marshal Foch having changed his mind, French, Moroccans and Americans troops were sent into the Lys sector. Fighting with the Australian and British contingents, they helped to push the Germans back and by 27 April the original Front line had almost been restored. Although the offensive had cost the British 9,529 casualties, Australians 2,473 and French about 3,500, due to  successful defensive tactics the battle impeded the decisive defeat that Ludendorff sort to force the Allies to seek peace negotiations.

Ludendorff had relied heavily on the fearsome well trained stoßtruppens but as the Offensives progressed their numbers were reduced through death or injury and their replacements were not as well trained nor as numerous. For this reason, it is cited, the Germans did not capture one of the principal reasons for the Offensive, Hazebrouck. There was also the increasing problem in getting supplies through to their troops on the Front lines. This hinderance became a joint forte of the Allies squadrons and engineers. The Allies aerial attacks centred on machine gunning roads and supply wagons at the same time as protecting the engineers while they blew up bridges. Finally, although the Allies lost more men than the Germans, they had the Americans coming on stream, with men, equipment and arms. While the German military overestimated their offensive capabilities resulting in greater losses than they estimated. These losses were not, nor could they be replaced. Author and researcher Martin Marix Evans in 2002 estimated that the total number of Allies casualties in the Spring Offensive were 118,300 men. The British Empire lost 76,300 men, the French 35,000 men and the Portuguese 7,000 men. The German and Central Powers casualties in the Spring Offensive was 109,300 men. 2,473, French, Moroccans and Americans approximately 3,500 and the German 8,000-10,000 casualties. 

 Loss of Kemmel April 1918. Times

Loss of Kemmel April 1918. Times

Second Battle of Kemmel 25–26 April and the Battle of the Scherpenberg, 29 April 1918
On the Lys Front, a French Division had arrived at Kemmel on the eastern slopes of the 500foot high Kemmelberg, south-east of Ypres, relieving the British. But on the evening of 25 April the German Fourth Army launched a massive bombardment on Kemmelberg that included bombs, shells, machine-guns and gas grenades. By 06.00hours the following morning, some 5,000 Frenchmen were dead and the Germans had captured Kemmelberg claiming 6,500 prisoners. The Allied troops were forced to retreat from all the hills in the region and the Germans then captured Voormezeele, several miles north of Kemmel but with hard fighting the Allies managed to regain it. The next morning at 05.00hours, in thick fog, the Germans attacked again, and ground was lost with the British No.4 Battalion taking the brunt. Fighting continued and on 29 April the Germans attacked and captured Scherpenberg, a 400foot high hill to the northwest of the Kemmelberg. This took its name from the fact that it stands out in the flat landscape. For centuries Scherpenberg was topped by a mill that provided an excellent look out. Capturing the hill was a coup for the Germans but before they left, they destroyed the mill.

German General Headquarters, General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, General Erich Ludendorff. National Library of Scotland

German General Headquarters, General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, General Erich Ludendorff. National Library of Scotland

Following the Battle of Scherpenberg the German High Command suddenly called off the Kaiserschlacht Offensive.  On the same day a representative body of 100 officers from the American Aviation Section, Signal Corps based in Britain and including Swingate, accompanied Major F G Noel to Windsor Castle. Ed was included and on arrival they were shown round the most interesting parts of the royal residence before taking tea in  St George’s Hall with King George V and his Queen Consort (1910-1936) Mary of Teck (1867-1953).

Windsor Castle - St George’s Hall from W H Pyne History of the Royal Residences Vol 1

Windsor Castle – St George’s Hall from W H Pyne History of the Royal Residences Vol 1

 They had been invited as the Royal couple wished to express their appreciation of the ‘excellent work the Americans were doing for the Allied cause.’ Of the officers invited, five were presented to the King and Queen, they were, Lieutenant JH Adoue of Texas, Lieutenant PS Brinsmede of New York, Medical Officer J Elliott of New York, Lieutenant EC Fisher of Texas, Second Lieutenant NF Murray of Illinois and Mr Crewe of the American YMCA. On returning to Dover, Ed called on Sara and Jane and gave the young girl the souvenir postcard given by Princess Mary (1897-1965), on the back was printed ‘From the King and Queen 29th April 1918, Windsor Castle.’ This Jane read out and then carefully stowed it in her mother’s box of memories. Both Jane and Sara were eager to hear all about the visit and Ed promised that he would take them to Windsor one day. 

Later, Ed told Sara that he had asked to be sent to the Front but not to join the 34 Aero Squadron. On the day he was sent to Swingate, he said, the 34 Aero Squadron were sent to Tours. As they had successfully completed their training in England some were transferred to other squadrons on the Front. The highly educated members, like Ed, remained at Tours becoming trainers, teaching new squadrons that were also sent to the Front. Since then only new men with academic abilities were transferred into 34 Aero Squadron and then they were kept on as teachers following a laid down curriculum. They had not even being allowed to undertake research, investigative, experimental or analysis work, which was causing frustration. Even Ed felt that their expertise was not being fully utilised and for this reason he had applied for a transfer. Sara was saddened but did not show it – their relationship had deepened. They then spoke about the possibility of Sara and Jane being evacuated. Sara told Ed that the town were used to being on the Front line so didn’t think that Mayor Farley would give the go ahead until the Germans actually arrived in the harbour! In the meantime she and Jane were moving to her parents cottage in Adrian Street at the foot of Western Heights. 

Built as an Art School, it subsequently became the Dover Girls' High School then the Girls' Grammar School. Paddock off Maison Dieu Road pre WWI. Dover Library

Built as an Art School, it subsequently became the Dover Girls’ High School then the Girls’ Grammar School. Paddock off Maison Dieu Road pre WWI. Dover Library

The rent of the rooms in Church Street, Sara told Ed, had been increased again and so her mother-in-law had decided to move in with Kate, who was expecting twins. The cottage in Adrian Street was a two up – two down one, where her parents were already sharing with Sally and Jack, Sara’s sister and brother. With a huge smile Sara then told Ed that St James school had agreed to allow Jane to stay there rather than to be transferred to a nearer school and, she said with glee, ‘They are putting Jane forward for a scholarship to the Dover County Grammar School for Girls’ in the Paddock!‘ Sara’s highly animated face then changed and she looked resigned saying that her mother and father were both getting over a nasty attack of the Spanish Flu that was doing the rounds. Sally was looking after them but was finding it difficult to cope because of Jack, who was suffering from shell shock.

Of Note, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic came in two waves and the symptoms in the first wave were similar but milder than the second phase. In practically all cases, the virus attack started with a sudden violent headache, renal pains and a rapid rise in temperature. This phase reached Dover at the end of March 1918 and the last case in the town was reported at the end of May. 

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 April - Dover and a new enemy attacks, 1918 April - Dover and a new enemy attacks, 1918 April - Dover and a new enemy attacks, 1918 April - Dover and a new enemy attacks, World War I. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Swingate Part IIIb – World War I Front Line Aerodrome April 1918

  1. Pingback: Swingate Part IIIa – World War I Front Line Aerodrome January – March 1918 | The Dover Historian

  2. Pingback: Swingate Part IIIb – World War I Front Line Aerodrome April 1918 — Dover Historian | Ups Downs Family History

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