Few residents of the English town of Folkestone in Kent expected that they would soon be witnessing the horrors of war first-hand on the morning of May 25, 1917. But before that day was out, 77 citizens of the small seaside community would be dead and another 195 would be wounded. Sixteen Canadian troops and two British soldiers stationed at the nearby Shorncliffe army base would also be killed.
All would be victims of a new German secret weapon, the Gotha G.IV heavy bomber. The 40-foot long twin-engine aircraft, which first took to the skies in March of that year, was designed to haul an unheard of payload of 1,100 lbs. distances in excess of 500 miles.
The target of the raid was actually London. But with foul weather threatening, the commander of the air group ordered the formation of 21 aircraft to divert mid-mission to a secondary objective on the coast.
Even though one of the G.IVs was attacked and shot down by a British Sopwith on the return voyage, the mission was a success as far as the commanders of the German air service (the Luftstreitkräfte) were concerned.
The daylight raid was just the beginning of a major bombing campaign against southern England and British capital dubbed Operation Türkenkreuz (Turk Cross). By the end of the yearlong operation, large formations of Gotha IVs and even more powerful Gotha Vs would drop nearly 100 tons of high explosives onto the United Kingdom in 52 separate attacks. According to records, the raids killed at least 800 civilians and injured more than 2,000.
ACHTUNG — ZEPPELINS!
To be sure, southern England had long been in German bombsights, even before the first Gotha raid.
Since 1915, Zeppelins and Schütte-Lanz airships had been crossing the North Sea to strike both military and civilian targets all along the English coast and as far inland as London.
After the shock of these initial raids subsided, British war planners began organizing countermeasures to meet the Zeppelin threat. Eventually, anti aircraft batteries were established throughout southern England and as many as 12 fighter squadrons were redeployed to defend the region. Although the airship raids succeeded in terrifying the civilian population, by the fall of 1916, defensive measures, along with the advent of incendiary bullets, began to exact a heavy toll on the invaders. At least eight of the highly flammable hydrogen-filled airships were destroyed in September and October alone. By the end of that year, Germany suspended its Zeppelin campaign as war planners in Berlin scrambled to find a more suitable (and safer) method of delivering bombs into English cities.
ENTER THE GOTHA
By early 1917, Germany’s own Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a firm that had before the war made railroad cars, unveiled the Gotha G.IV. Since 1915, the company’s plants had turned out nearly 60 of the smaller Gotha G.Is, G.IIs and G.IIIs. As early as 1914, the Luftstreitkräfte had used its bombers to strike French and Belgian cities. But none of these early aircraft had the range or lifting power to serve as a true strategic bomber. The Gotha G.IV, although woefully sluggish and ungainly, could at least reach across the channel while hauling enough explosives to make the trip worthwhile. Germany quickly ordered 250 of the aircraft. By the summer, the larger, faster and stronger G.V was ready for service. Eventually 205 would be produced.
By all counts, Türkenkreuz was even more successful than the Zeppelin campaign of 1915 to 1916. Eleven days after the initial raid on Folkestone, a follow up strike was launched by 22 G.IVs against a naval facility at Sheerness. The daylight attack killed 13 for the loss of a single bomber.
Eighteen Gothas reached London itself on June 13. The raid killed 162 civilians and injured more than 400 without any losses for Germany. During the strike, a single bomb hit a middle school in the city killing more than 40 children. The attack horrified and enraged the country. It would be the deadliest attack on the British homeland of the entire war. Another raid on the city was launched on July 7 – the death toll was 57. More strikes on London would follow over the coming months; other cities like Chatham and Essex would fall prey as well.
Türkenkreuz was more than just a terror campaign. The unexpected arrival of German bombers in English airspace forced commanders to divert precious anti-aircraft batteries from the Western Front to the British Isles. Worse, as many as 100 fighters that would have been much more useful in France were redeployed to patrol the skies over London.
That said, the cost of the campaign to Germany was considerable — Gotha losses were heavy. With a top speed of less than 90 mph, the lumbering G.IVs were easily outpaced by British fighters. And while each bomber had forward and rear-facing machine guns, the planes’ undersides were completely defenceless. It was an oversight that was corrected in the G.V. But until the newer models were deployed, British fighters could safely attack the bombers from below. Gothas were also unstable – it was not uncommon for bombers to make the arduous six-hour flight to England and back only to break apart upon landing.
As more Gothas were lost to enemy fire, the Luftstreitkräfte shifted from daytime strikes to low-level night bombing. Although this change in tactics spared many bombers from the vengeful fighters, even more of the precious aircraft were now crashing in the dark during landing. Night flying also made navigation difficult. Despite theses challenges, 22 nighttime raids were ordered in late 1917 and early 1918. By the end of the campaign in May of 1918, more than 60 Gothas had been lost: 24 to enemy fire, the rest to accidents.
The final raid on England took place almost a year after the start of Türkenkreuz. The May 19, 1918 daylight strike saw 38 G.IVs and G.Vs, along with five smaller bombers, hit a string of targets in the British capital and cities across southern England. Forty-nine Britons perished in the attack. While the bombers were certainly taking a psychological toll on the British war effort, the Luftstreitkräfte found that the cost of the raids outweighed their strategic value. No more missions were ordered and Germany’s bomber fleet was redeployed to attack targets on the Western Front for the remainder of the war.
Despite the limited success of the campaign, Operation Türkenkreuz was the subject of considerable study following the Armistice. Although these early raids posed monumental technical challenges to Germany, they did demonstrate to the world’s air forces the tremendous future potential of strategic bombing (for better or for worse) and informed subsequent generations of war planners. Later tragedies in places like Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, Tokyo and Cambodia were all the grim offspring of those early Gotha missions over southern England.