The Cuxhaven Raid 25 December 1914

Happy Christmas to all readers!

However, 25 December 1914 was just another day of the war at sea for many British and German sailors.

It is well known that a Truce took place on parts of the Western Front on 25 December 1914, although it was by no means universal: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists 149 men who died that day, of whom 57 are commemorated in France and 22 in Belgium. Some would have died of illness or accident and others of wounds suffered earlier, but the day was not free of combat.

A major operation that did take place that day was the Cuxhaven Raid, when British seaplanes attempted to attack a German airship base in the first ever combined air and sea strike. Many sailors spent Christmas Day at sea.

The Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912, consisting initially of a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School. In July 1914 the Naval Wing became the Royal Naval Air Service. That month, 17 of its seaplanes and two flights of landplanes made a fly past during in the Spithead Fleet Review.[1]

The first British warship equipped to carry aircraft was the elderly cruiser HMS Hermes, which was converted to carry two seaplanes in 1913. She was torpedoed and sunk by U27 on 31 October 1914 in the Straits of Dover, whilst operating as an aircraft transport. In 1914, the Admiralty acquired an incomplete merchant ship in order to convert her into an aircraft carrier with five seaplanes and two landplanes. She was completed in December 1914 and was the first of four British carriers named HMS Ark Royal.

Ark Royal was incomplete at the start of the war and was also slow, so three cross channel passenger packets, the Engadine, Riviera and Empress, were acquired and quickly converted into seaplane carriers. Each initially were fitted with canvas screens that allowed them to carry one seaplane forward and two aft. Later, they were re-fitted with larger metal hangars that meant they could operate four seaplanes.[2] They were attached to the Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers.

The air defence of Britain was the responsibility of the RNAS. Almost the RFC’s aircraft and pilots were overseas and those left at in the UK were busy training new pilots. The main aerial threat was expected to come from German airships, usually called Zeppelins, although some were built by Zeppelin’s rival Schütte-Lanz.

The threat from German airships to Britain in 1914 was far less than was popularly feared. Germany was thought to have 30 airships armed with as many as six cannon and seven tons of bombs. In fact, the German army had seven airships armed with one or two machine guns and carrying bombs converted from artillery shells. The navy had bought three, but two had been lost accidentally in 1913. It also leased a civilian one for training and would have five more delivered before the end of 1914. The army airships carried out bombing raids on Belgium in the early months of the war. The main role of the navy ones was fleet reconnaissance.[3]

Three army Zeppelins were lost to ground fire in August 1914, ZVI and ZVII on the Western Front over Belgium and ZV on the Eastern Front. On 8 October 1914 Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix, flying from a land base, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order after bombing and destroying ZIX in its hangar at Düsseldorf.

The Zeppelin company gave its airships a production number, prefixed LZ. The two armed forces numbered their Zeppelins on separate systems, prefixed Z for the army and L for the navy. Civilian ones were usually named. In 1915 the army switched first to using the LZ numbers and then to adding 30 to them in order to conceal its strength. This post uses the military numbers.

The British were not certain of the exact location of the main German navy airship base, but thought that it was Cuxhaven at the mouth of the River Elbe on the North Sea coast. It was actually at Nordholz, eight miles south west and inland of Cuxhaven. It had a double hangar, capable of holding two Zeppelins, which was mounted on a turntable so that it could be turned into the wind.

Two more Zeppelins were located at a former civilian base at Fuhlsbüttel near Hamburg. Only four of the six Zeppelins operated by the navy in December 1914 were therefore based near the North Sea.

The first attempt to attack the base by seaplanes flying from the Harwich Force’s carriers came on 25 October. Heavy rain prevented the seaplanes taking off and a Zeppelin from spotting the attacking force.

A second attempt on 24 November was planned as part of an operation to draw out the High Seas Fleet and attack it with the Grand Fleet. The air part was abandoned after the interception of a German wireless signal indicating that a force of cruisers and destroyers was close to the take off position of the seaplanes. The main fleets did not come into contact.[4]

The third attempt was to take place on 25 December 1914. Nine seaplanes, three flying from each of HMS Engadine (Squadron Commander Cecil L’Estrange Malone), Empress (Lieutenant E. Robertson) and Riviera (Lieutenant Frederick Bowhill), would carrying out the attack. All three seaplane carriers were captained by aviators. This was the normal practice in the RNAS, although it ‘seems to have evolved informally.’[5]

It was abandoned by the British when the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, leading to almost all RNAS officers leaving the RN, but was adopted by the United States Navy in 1926, in this case as a formal policy.

The seaplanes were all single engined, two seater biplanes manufactured by Short, of three different types: the oldest were three Type 74s on Empress and one on Riviera; Engadine carried three Type 81s, often called Folders because they were the first aircraft to have folding wings in order to make storage on a ship easier; and the newest were two Type 135s on Riviera, a more powerful version of the Folder. They had no machine guns, although one carried a rifle.

Each of the nine seaplanes carried three 20 pound bombs. The weight of explosive in the 27 bombs totalled 81.5 pounds, 3.5 pounds less than in a single 13.5 inch shell, the largest then carried by a British dreadnought.[6]

Although each seaplane could carry two men, only three of the nine actually did so on the raid. According to R. D. Layman’s history of the raid, eight of the pilots were given the choice of taking a mechanic along; only the three from Empress did so. Layman notes that the mechanics could add little to justify their extra weight, since the pilot aimed and dropped the bombs, adding that it is not known why some pilots took a mechanic. The ninth aircraft, piloted by Flight Commander Cecil Kilner, carried Lieutenant Erskine Childers as an observer.[7]

Childers was 44 years old had served as an artilleryman in the Boer War and then turned to Irish Nationalist politics despite being a Protestant from a privileged background. He had been smuggling German guns into Ireland earlier in 1914, but had volunteered to join the RN at the outbreak of the war. The author of The Riddle of the Sands, his importance to the Admiralty and to this mission was ‘his almost unique knowledge of German coastal waters.’[8]

The seaplane carriers were escorted by three light cruisers and eight destroyers of the Harwich Force, commanded by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt. It would be reinforced by another light cruiser and eight more destroyers when it came to pick up the seaplanes after the raid. A line of 11 submarines was placed between the surface ships and the German coast. The Grand Fleet would move into the southern North Sea in case the raid brought out heavy enemy ships.

The Germans were expecting a British attack, but thought it would be an attempt to block German rivers. They appears to have learnt that the British were preparing blockships to defend Scapa Flow and disguising merchantmen to look like warships. An over estimate of the number of blockships led them to assume wrongly that the purpose was offensive rather than defensive.[9]

The seaplanes were to take off just after dawn on Christmas Day. They were hoisted from the carriers into the sea, the mechanics started the engines and those of them who were not flying returned to their ships. However, one aircraft developed engine problems and two men, Chief Petty Officer Ernest Wright and Air Mechanic George Kent, swam back to her in order to correct them. Both were commended for their bravery.

Malone gave the signal for the first wave to prepare to take off in five minutes at 6:54 am. The seaplanes had difficulties in taking off and only seven were in the air by 7:22 am, when Malone decided that enough time had been taken, ordering the other two to be hoisted back onto their carriers. The sea was light and calm, requiring the aircraft to take longer take off runs, thus using more fuel. The plan was that they should carry enough for a three hour flight, which should have been enough to complete the mission. However, Riviera’s captain, Robertson, decided that his aircraft should carry four hour’s fuel.[10]

The seaplanes took about an hour to reach the coast. All saw at least one Zeppelin, with some spotting two, although two mis-identified one of them as a Schütte-Lanz. The airships were L5 and L6. This meant that no airships were at Nordholz. The British did not know its exact location, but should have had no difficulty in spotting it in good weather. However, there was a thick fog over the land.

The fate of the aircraft was as follows:

HMS Engadine:

Folder no. 119, Flight Commander Robert Ross.

Dropped a bomb on what he thought, probably wrongly, was a submarine diving before landing on the water to investigate problems with fuel pressure. Took off when a trawler appeared. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

Folder no. 120, Flt Lt Arnold Miley.

Failed to find the airship base and came under fire from warships whilst reconnoitring Wilhelmshaven naval base. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near the submarine HMS E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

Folder no. 122, Flt Cmdr A. B. Gaskell.

Failed to take off due to engine failure.

HMS Riviera:

Type 135 no. 135, Flt Cmdr Francis Hewlett.

Came under fire from warships, failed to find the base and did not drop any bombs. Suffered engine failure, ditched in the sea, picked up by a Dutch trawler, landed in the Netherlands and made his way back to Britain.

Type 135 no. 136, Flt Cmdr Cecil Kilner/Lt Erskine Childers.

Unable to find the airship base. Damaged by fire from warships. Childers carried out a successful reconnaissance of the naval base. Kilner decided to save his bombs for the submarine base, but was then unable to find it. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

Type 74 no. 811, Flt Lt Charles Edmonds.

Was not fired on at first. Tried to find the airship base by following the railway line, but could not. Tried to bomb the light cruisers SMS Stralsund and Graudenz, but missed and was damaged by return fire. The German Official History reports only two rather than three bombs. Returned to the carriers and aircraft recovered.

HMS Empress:

Type 74 no. 812, Flt Lt Reginald Bone/Air Mechanic Waters.

Failed to take off due to engine failure.

Type 74 no. 814. Flt Sub-Lt Vivian Gaskell Blackburn, Chief Petty Officer James Bell.

Came under fire from warships and was then damaged by shore batteries. Dropped two bombs on the latter and one on the city of Wilhelmshaven, but the German Official History makes no mention of any explosions in the area. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

Type 74 no. 815, Flt Cdr Douglas Oliver, CPO Gilbert Budds.

Damaged by fire from shore based guns. Failed to find the airship base and dropped three bombs on what Oliver thought was a seaplane base, but was probably fishermen’s sheds or warehouses. Unable to find the carriers but landed in the sea near E11. Taken on board the submarine and seaplane sunk.

The German Official History reports that two bomb was dropped at the airship base, apparently aimed at but missing its gasometer. This does not fit in with any of the British accounts; Layman suggests that it must have been either Ross or Miley dropping bombs to lighten their load ahead of the flight home, not realising that they were over their target. [11]

Two of the three aircraft from Riviera made it back to the carriers, justifying Robertson’s decision to give his aircraft extra fuel; the other had engine problems. Of the four seaplanes carrying two men, two had to ditch beside E11, one did not take off and the fourth was one of those from Riviera with extra fuel, showing that the weight of the extra man created problems. One of the two with one man and a lower fuel load made it back and the other ditched beside E11.

The carriers and their escorts had moved away from the launch point once the seaplanes were in the air. Their turn away came just in time to foil a torpedo attack by the U boat SMS U6. HMS Empress, capable of only 18 knots, 3 knots less than the other two carriers, lagged behind the other ships, but they could not wait if they were to make the rendezvous in time.

Empress was attacked by two seaplanes and L6, which dropped 13 bombs on her. All missed, with the closest landing 20 feet away. The Zeppelin also machine gunned her. The escorts fired on the enemy aircraft and airship. They withdrew, but because they had dropped all their bombs. L6‘s damage was confined to three bullet holes.

The ships reached the rendezvous point at 9:30 am. They came under attack from L5 and more seaplanes, but escaped damage. This ‘convinced [Tyrwhitt] that, given ordinary sea room, our ships had nothing to fear from either seaplanes or Zeppelins.’[12]

The Cuxhaven Raid was a failure in materiel terms. The first edition of Naval Operations claimed that the battlecruiser SMS Von der Tann missed the Battle of Dogger Bank the next month because of damage suffered when she collided with another German ship during the raid. This was not true (she missed Dogger Bank due to a routine refit) and was removed from the second edition, revised after the publication of the German Official History.[13]

The only loss suffered by the Germans was one seaplane, with a Zeppelin, a trawler and perhaps one or two seaplanes suffering minor damage. The British lost four seaplanes and had three destroyers and a submarine temporarily disabled.[14] Most seriously, the Orion class dreadnoughts HMS Conqueror and Monarch collided, leaving both requiring dockyard repair.[15]

However, another British attack on Helgoland Bight, following the surface one in August 1914 boosted the morale of the British and damaged that of the Germans.

Two of the British pilots, Edmonds and Kilner, were awarded the DSO and the two CPOs who flew in the raid, Bell and Budds, were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

The RN led the world in air-sea operations in 1914. However, it later fell behind the USN and the Imperial Japanese Navy To a large extent, this was due to the loss of expertise that it suffered when most of its aviators transferred to the RAF when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and RNAS in 1918. The RN regained control of carrier aircraft, but not shore based ones operating over the sea, just before the start of the Second World War.

Bowhill became an Air Chief Marshal, equivalent to an Admiral, in the RAF and commanded Coastal Command, operating its shore based maritime aircraft, in the early days of the Second World War. Edmonds became an Air Vice Marshal, equivalent to a Rear Admiral.

Childers remained in the RN and then the RAF for the duration of the war. He was part of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but was amongst those Irishmen who opposed the terms, leading to the Irish Civil War. He was captured and executed by his opponents in 1922.

As well as those sailors involved in the Cuxhaven Raid, many others were at sea on Christmas Day 1914, including the crews of the ships enforcing the British blockade, minesweepers and German U-boats. The British minesweeping trawler HMT Night Hawk struck a mine that day, resulting in the deaths of the six men listed here.

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), pp. 273-74.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 64-65; R. D. Layman, The Cuxhaven Raid: The World’s First Carrier Air Strike (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 32-33.

[3] Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 19-22.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xii, Home Waters part iii, November 1914 to the end of January 1915. pp. 51-59.

[5] Layman, Cuxhaven, p. 50.

[6] Ibid., p. 61.

[7] Ibid., pp. 67-68.

[8] Ibid., p. 51.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xii. pp. 133-35.

[10] Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 62, 68-70.

[11] The description of the raid is based on Ibid., pp. 85-96.

[12] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 136.

[13] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii pp. 52-53, 84; Layman, Cuxhaven, pp. 118-20. and endnote 10.

[14] Layman, Cuxhaven, p. 115.

[15] Naval Staff vol. Xii. p. 143.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “The Cuxhaven Raid 25 December 1914

  1. MERRY CHRISTMAS, Martin and thank you for my years of history lessons. I’ll look forward to more in 2015!!!

  2. An interesting comment about the change in ship command Martin. It is true that the majority of RNAS officers left the RN. This was, primarily, a question of career prospects. Many feared that if they returned to the RN then their seniority would be back dated by several ranks whereas if they were lucky enough to gain a permanent commission in the RAF then they may only drop one rank or indeed keep there current status. Many were also, obviously, keen air power advocates and wanted this to be their profession and the only place do that, in a military sense, was in the RAF. As Roskill admitted this meant the RN lost many of its most forward thinking officers. It was of a great benefit to the RAF though the insuing inter-war debates were less than helpful.

    • Thanks for that. Good point about the fact that joining the RAF was the correct career move for the ex RNAS officers. Another is that, whilst the men who took part in the Cuxhaven Raid were trained as both airmen and sailors, many men later joined the RNAS specifically as pilots and had no sea going service.
      On the USN, one clarification that I should make is that I think that many US carrier captains qualified as observers or, in Halsey’s case, pilots late in their careers in order to maximise the sea going command opportunities open to them as Captains. I did read a claim that the RN later thought that being a carrier captain required a level of seamanship that it was hard for a man who had spent much of his career in an aircraft cockpit rather than on a bridge to possess. It therefore favoured a command combination of a highly skilled seaman as Captain and an aviator as Commander (Air). The RN expected air observers but not pilots to share in watch keeping duties on board ship.
      A problem with British naval aviation between the wars that was the fault of the RN rather than the RAF or the politicians who merged the RFC and RNAS was that it was perceived in the RN that aviators would have worse promotion prospects than men of other specialities.
      The RN by WWII did have a number of men who were not trained aviators but who had specialised in captaining carriers and then commanding carrier squadrons as admirals, such as Denis Boyd and Lumley Lyster, who were captain of HMS Illustrious and Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers in the Mediterranean at Taranto. Another was Reginald Henderson, who died just before the start of WWII.

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