- HMS Empress during the Great War -
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25th December 1914 The Cuxhaven Raid Aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service were carried to within striking distance by seaplane tenders of the Royal Navy, HMS Engadine, HMA Riviera and HMS Empress, supported by the Harwich Force, a group of cruisers, destroyers and submarines commanded by Commodore Reginald Yorke Tyrwhitt, to launch three seaplanes each from their station near Helgoland in the German Bight. The objective was to reconnoitre military installations in the area and, if possible, bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. This was the first combined sea and air strike was executed by the Royal Navy. The air temperature was just above freezing when nine seaplanes were lowered to the water, only seven of the Short Folders, were able to start their engines and take off, each carrying three 20-pound bomb. Those unable to take part were winched back on board. Fog, low cloud and anti-aircraft fire prevented the raid from being a complete success, although several sites were attacked.
The crews of all seven aircraft were airbourne for over three hours and all survived the raid. Three aircraft landed on the sea and were winched abord their tenders, a 100 hp Short 'Improved Type 74' RNAS serial no. 811 flown by Flt. Lt. C. H. K. Edmonds, a 160 hp Short Admiralty Type 81 RNAS serial no. 119 flown by Flt. Cdr. R. P. Ross and a Short Admiralty Type 135 RNAS serial no. 136 flown by Flt. Cdr. C. F. Kilner with Lt. Erskine Childers as his observer. Three others, 'Admiralty Type 81' RNAS serial no. 120 flown by Flt. Lt. A. J. Miley, and two 100 hp Short 'Improved Type 74' folders, RNAS serial nos. 814 flown by Flt. Sub-Lt. V. Gaskell-Blackburn and 815 flown by Flt. Cdr. D. A. Oliver, landed off the East Friesian island of Norderney and their crews were taken on board the submarine E11, the aircraft being scuttled to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. The last aircraft, a Short Admiralty Type 135 RNAS serial no. 135 flown by Flt. Lt. Francis and E.T. Hewlett, suffered engine faileur and was seen to ditch into the sea 8 miles off Helgoland. Hewlett was posted as missing, but he was found by the Dutch trawler Marta van Hattem, which took him on board and returned him to the port of Ymuiden in Holland, where he disembarked on the 2nd of January 1915 and made his way back to England.
It was the first-ever bombing raid by ship-borne aircraft, three channel steamers that had been hastily converted to carry seaplanes, which had to be launched and recovered from the sea by winch alongside their vessels. The Engadine, Riviera and Empress had been requisitioned from the South East & Chatham Railway Company on 11th of August 1914. In the first days of WWI HMS Empress carried the equipment of Cdr Charles Samson’s Eastchurch Squadron when they deployed across the Channel to Ostend, then she joined the other two vessels which were being converted in Chatham Dockyard. The work involved fitting derricks and handling gear so they could carry three seaplanes, which were stored under canvas hangars. The conversion work was completed on 30th of September and all three were assigned to The Harwich Force comprising the three seaplane tenders and a number of cruisers, destroyers and submarines, had been assmebled under the command of Commodore Reginald Yorke Tyrwitt for a raid on German homeland. The plan, code name ‘Plan Y’, had been dreamt up by Robert Erskine Childers RNVR, a yachtsman who had sailed much in the Baltic and German Bight before the war, was the ships would steam to a flying-off position within range of Cuxhaven, where the nine aircraft would be launched. The objective being to reconnoitre military installations in the area, and carry out a pre-emptive strike on the zeppelin sheds, located near the Nordholz airfield.
On Christmas Eve thirty-four ships moved out from Harwich, and from Scottish waters then sailed south overnight to rendezvous in the North Sea 12 miles north of Heligoland just before dawn on Christmas morning. CPO James William Bell, age 21, was a mechanic onboard HMS Empress. Before sailing he had helped embark sixteen 20lbs bombs onboard, and had been instructed to ‘drill holes them so that they could be slung under the seaplanes’. The rest of the crew were told to move aft in case Bell ‘blew them all to pieces’. His task complete, Bell prepared to join Flt Sub Lt Vivian Gaskell-Blackburn, and act as his Observer.
Tyrwitt’s log records, “weather conditions perfect for flying, light airs from the eastward, sea calm, but bitterly cold” In fact the launch site was shrouded with low cloud and fog, and the temperature barely above freezing when the aircraft were lowered into the water at 0630. The aircraft engines coughed a spluttered as crew struggled to get them to start. Two maintainers, realising one crew were in difficulty, jumped into the sea and swam over to the aircraft and helped persuade the Gnome engine into life. Despite this attention, two of the aircraft simply would not start, but the other seven took off and headed towards their objective. They were each armed with three 20lb bombs. The only other weapons carried were the pilot’s revolvers, with six packets of ammunition, and the three aircraft that had an Observer carried a rifle.
From HMS Engadine: No.119 a Short Type 81 ‘Folder’ Flt Cdr Robert P Ross, No.120 Short Type 81 Flt Lt Arnold J Miley and No.122 Short Type 81 Flt Cdr A.B Gaskell
From HMS Riviera: No.135 Short Admiralty Type 135 Flt Lt Francis E.T Hewlett, No.136 Short Admiralty Type 135 Capt Cecil F Kilner RMLI with Erskine Childers and No.811 Short ‘Improved’ Type 74 Lt Charles H.K Esmonds RN.
From HMS Empress: No.812 Short ‘Improved’ Type 74 Flt Lt R.J Bone with Air Mechanic Waters, No.814 Short ‘Improved’ Type 74 Flt Sub Lt V Gaskell-Blackburn with CPO James Ball and No.815 Short ‘Improved’ Type 74 Flt Cdr Douglas A Oliver with CPO Gilbert H W Budd.
Two unserviceable aircraft, No.122 and No.812, were recovered onto HMS Empress and Engadine by the deck crew. One hour later the airborne aircraft encountered some enemy fire from ships as they approached the German coast one hour. Inland the fog was thicker, so the pilots descended to low level, hoping to spot landmarks that would guide them towards their destination. The first indication to Gaskell-Blackburn and Bell that they had coasted in was when Blackburn spotted a railway line beneath him. Initially they turned south, then turned around and headed north and arrived at Wilhelmshaven, where they once again came under fire and one of the floats on their Type 74 was damaged by a small calibre shell. Bell retaliated by dropping two bombs on the gun position before they turned away to return to the ships.
Admiralty Memorandum on the Combined Operations by HM Ships and Naval Seaplanes on 25 December 1914 states:- “On 25th December 1914, an air reconnaissance of the Heligoland Bight, including Cuxhaven, Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven, was made by naval seaplanes, and the opportunity was taken at the same time of attacking with bombs, points of military importance. The reconnaissance involved combined operations by light cruisers, destroyers and seaplane carriers under Commodore Reginald Y Tyrwhitt CB and submarines acting under the orders of Commodore Roger Keyes CB MVO. The vessels detailed for the operations arrived at their rendezvous before daylight and as soon as the light was sufficient the seaplanes were hoisted out and dispatched. At the beginning of the flight the weather was clear but on nearing the land the seaplanes met with thick weather, and were compelled to fly low, thus becoming exposed to a heavy fire at short range from ships and shore batteries. Several machines were hit, but all remained in the air for over three hours, and succeeded in obtaining valuable information regarding the disposition of the enemy's ships and defences. ‘Bombs were dropped on military points. In the meanwhile German submarines, seaplanes and Zeppelins delivered a combined attack upon the light cruisers, destroyers and seaplane carriers but were driven off.’ Flt Cdrs Kilner and Ross and Flt Lt Edmonds regained their ships. Flt Cdr Oliver, Flt Lt Miley and Flt Sub-Lt Gaskell-Blackburn became short of fuel and were compelled to descend near submarine E11.
Submarine E11 was commanded by Lt Cdr Martin E Nasmith RN who, along with others, had been detached by Keyes closer inshore to assist any seaplane that might be in difficulties. Gaskell-Blackburn and Bell running low on fuel when they spotted E11, which already had Miley’s Type 81 in tow. Despite the presence of Zeppelin LZ5 in the vicinity they decided to land nearby, but the damaged float on their seaplane collapsed as soon as they touched the water and the aircraft tipped nose up. Shortly afterwards Oliver and Budds in their Type 74 landed alongside them. Naismith manoeuvred the submarine alongside, so close that Oliver and Budd could step aboard; whilst Blackburn and Bell jumped into the sea and swam towards E11. As soon as they airmen were a safe distance the crew on E11 opened fore with machine guns and shot away the floats and No.814 sank. Blackburn climbed onboard with ease, however Bell was struggling in the swirling seas. With the Zeppelin now closing in, a Leading Seaman jumped down from the conning tower, waded along the gun-platform, threw Bell a line and hauled him onboard, and he was bundled down the hatchway just as E11 submerged. Bell later recalls feeling, “a slight bump as the sub reached the seabed, before an appalling crash reverberated through the hull when the first of two bombs from the airship burst in the water above them”. E11 escaped undamaged and the airmen joined the crew for Christmas dinner on the seabed, 20 fathoms below the surface, before heading back to Harwich.
The seventh aircraft, flown by Hewlett, had engine problems whilst returning to the ships, and was seen to ditch into the sea and Hewlett was thought lost. However, he was later picked up by the Dutch trawler Marta van Hattem and taken to Ijmuiden, where he disembarked on 2nd of January 1915 whence he made his way back to England.
At 10.00, three and half hours after launch the Captain of HMS Empress, Lt F W Bowhill RN, was waiting at the agreed rendezvous for his aircraft to return. His subsequent report states: "Whilst making for rendezvouz No.4, I dropped astern not being able to steam so fast as the other two ships and I was then subjected to a systematic attack by two German seaplanes and one Zeppelin. The first seaplane attacked from the starboard bow, at a height of about 2,000ft and dropped a star bomb. This signal, I presume, meaning "am about to attack". The crew dropped three pairs of bombs (six in all), but made very bad shooting, the bombs dropped from 200 to 300 yards away on our starboard bow; smoke black and yellowish; size of bombs about 10lbs each. Then the second seaplane attacked from the port bow at a height of about 1,000ft, dropping two fairly large bombs. This attack was nearly successful, one bomb dropping 20ft away on the port beam and shaking the ship severely, and the other 40ft off the starboard beam. The smoke was black and yellowish. The method of defence of defence adopted was to arm the gun's crews with rifles, and volleys were fired at the seaplanes, a few picked shots keeping up independent firing. As far as could be judged, the seaplanes were undamaged. I continuously kept on altering my course throughout the attacks. The Zeppelin attacked by rising to about 5,000ft on the starboard beam and coming over towards me. When nearly overhead she dived to about 2,000ft, and then manoeuvred to get directly above me, slowing down, and heading in the same direction as myself. She dropped two tracer bombs in order to obtain range, and these were followed by three bombs of apparently 100lbs each. The first one struck the water about 50yds off the port quarter, and gave out a greenish smoke; the second fell 50yds and the third 100yds astern. Fortunately both failed to detonate. She then opened fire with a ‘mitrailleuse’, and apparently fired three belts. The shooting, however, was indifferent. My method of defence was to watch her position carefully as she manoeuvred into position directly overhead. I then went hard over. I could see her rudders put over to follow me, and directly her head started to turn I put my helm over the other way. I continually repeated this manoeuvre, which seemed to worry her, for she was never on a steady course, and I think it put her off her aim; otherwise I feel to see how she could have missed us. A continual rifle fire was kept up at her, and though, of course, no damage could be seen, I think that she must have been hit in several places, for she sheered off and went on the port quarter. As soon as my after 12 pounders would bear, I fired eight shots at her, and one, I think, went very close, as she sheered right off and did not worry me again.”
Bowhill was unaware, and probably quite lucky that the Zeppelin had suffered a generator failure, and was unable to transmit the ship’s position to other aircraft and ships that undoubtedly were in the area. The Cuxhaven Raid was unsuccessful in that the aircraft failed to locate and attack their primary targets, and two aircraft were lost. However the Admiralty memorandum stated, “An expression of their Lordships appreciation has been conveyed to Cdre Keyes, Cdre Tyrwhitt and to Capt Sueter (Director of the Air Department) for their share in the combined operations which resulted in this successful reconnaissance”. It was also a milestone in the development of aircraft ship-borne operations and tested the German reaction to an attack on home soil. For their part in the Cuxhaven Raid, CPO Mechanic Bell No. M489 and CPO Mechanic Budds No. 271764 were awarded the DSM. Capt Kilner RMLI and Lt Edmonds RN were awarded the DSO More info.
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