By early 1917 the German High Command had realised that airship raids on England were proving to be too costly. They turned their attention to the use of long range aeroplane bombers.
The German Riesenflugzeuge, giant aircraft or R planes, had operated successfully on the Eastern Front since August 1916 and the High Command therefore decided to strengthen the R (Giant) and G (Gotha) heavy bomber force on the Western front. The first of the aeroplane attacks on England were launched during daylight hours in the summer of 1917. Losses quickly forced the Germans to change their tactics night raids. In the autumn of 1917, the experienced Reisenflugzeug Abteilung (giant aircraft unit) Ra501, moved to the Ghent area to commence night operations against England. The Gotha equipped third Bombengeschwader (Bomber Squadron) raided Chatham on the night of 3/4 September 1917. Although only about twenty bombs were dropped on the Chatham docks area, a number hit a barrack block killing 130 sailors. On the following night, eleven Gothas raided London and in spite of putting up eighteen fighter aircraft no enemy aircraft were attacked.
The next major attack came three weeks later, when 16 Gothas attacked London. Only nine succeeded in releasing their bombs, a few hitting London and the others bombing Dover and Margate. For the defenders it was proving difficult to find and attack the aeroplane at night compared with the large and slow flying airships. Bombers returned at the end of September when 25 Gothas and two R-Giants attacked London. Bad weather caused the aircraft to turn back and six of the Gothas were lost when they crashed on their return.
The bombers returned five more times in 1917, London being the target on all but one occasion. Results were poor and losses mounted, most of the crashes being due to the poor weather. The first British night fighter success occurred on the night of 18/19 December when Captain Murlis-Green, in a Sopwith Camel, shot down a Gotha which ditched in the sea off Folkestone.
The strategic bombing of London continued into the New Year and in late January 1918, 19 bombers attacked causing 67 deaths. The defenders put up 103 aircraft but only one Gotha was shot down – the British losing a Bristol Fighter when it was downed by a Giant it was attacking. In mid February, a small force of Giants dropped the first 1000kg bomb. March and April 1918 were quiet months over England and the night of 19/20 May saw the final aeroplane attack on London of the war when 38 Gothas and 3 Giants raided. The raiders caused relatively minor damage and three of their machines were shot down by the defending fighters. The night defences were now proving too strong and the German bomber aircraft never returned.
To summarise the effectiveness of the aeroplane bomber attacks, there were 52 aeroplane raids on England, the bombers dropped 73 tons of bombs which killed 857 people and injured 2,058 more.
A GOTHA PROPELLER BLADE WILL BE DISPLAYED FROM FEBRUARY 2011 IN THE REFURBISHED FIRST WORLD WAR EXHIBITION IN THE MUSEUM’S TANGMERE HALL.