Bombing Raids on Britain

During the First World War the German air force carried out 103 aerial bombing raids over Great Britain. The main targets were industrial cities, army camps and munitions factories. At first Germany used Zeppelins to bomb Britain. However, these were fairly easy to shoot down so in June 1917 Germany began sending the long-range bomber, the Gotha G-V, to Britain. The Gotha, with its giant wingspan (24 metres), was easy to identify and at first created considerable panic in those towns under attack. In the first raid over Folkestone, the Gotha bombing raid killed 95 people and wounded 195 more. This raid caused more casualties than any of the Zeppelin attacks that had taken place in the early stages of the war.

The British used searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft and balloon barrages against the Gotha attacks. By the middle of 1918 a 51 mile long (82 km) balloon barrage was established around London. The balloons were arranged in groups of three which were interconnected by means of steel cable from which a number of light cables of about 1,000 ft (300 metres) length hung vertically. This net barrage was mounted so high that enemy aircraft arriving to attack would have difficulties in flying above it.

A total of 61 Gotha G-V aircraft were lost over Britain between September 1917 and May 1918. Germany decided to abandon the policy of bombing Britain and for the rest of the war the Gotha G-V was used over the Western Front.

Primary Sources

(1) On the 28th December, 1914, The Times newspaper reported an air attack on Southend by a German FF29.

Three biplanes started in pursuit, and a wonderful aerial combat followed. The German attempted to rise completely out of range. Two of the British machines at once sought to head him off. Here the intrepid enemy had three foes to contend with. Two of our aircraft rose above him, while the third, mounted with a quick-firing gun, assailed him with a high-angle fire. The manoeuvring was of a remarkable character. The enemy obviously was an airman of quite exceptional skill, and he so piloted his machine as to place it in such a position that while minimizing in every way the chance of being hit, he made it difficult for his foes to fire without risk of injuring each other.

(2) Commander Godfrey Paine of the Central Flying School objected to British aircraft being sent up to engage German aircraft during bombing missions.

It is criminal to send pilots out of night without previous experience or on machines which are strange to them. This will effect no good and will probably cause the loss of the machine and pilot.

(3) On 4th September 1917, eleven German Gotha G-V bombed London, killing 152 people. General Jan Smuts, a member of the War Cabinet, investigated the attack.

Our aeroplanes afford no means of defence at night as they find it impossible to see the enemy machines even at a distance of a couple of hundred yards. In the recent raids they have been sent into the air but to no purpose, and they might just as well have remained on the ground. They are at night useful only against very large and conspicuous objectives, like Zeppelins, once they have been picked up by them.

(4) The writer V. S. Prichett described the first air-raid he experienced in his book London Perceived.

One sprightly morning in the early summer of 1916 ten or twenty small German bombers appeared over London, looking like knats. We rushed up to the roof of the warehouse where I worked to watch this novelty, with excitement. They dropped a few bombs, killed some horses in Billingsgate and turned Cloth Fair, Cheapside and Aldersgate. On this morning Great Britain ceased to be an island.