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21 November 1914 – Zeppelin Hunters

Above: the men involved in the Friedrichshafen raid. E.F. Briggs stands 4th from the right; Sydney Sippe is second from the left. Via the Imperial War Museum.

At about ten o’clock this morning, three airplanes leave the aerodrome near Belfort, France. Just minutes later, they are flying over the hostile territory where France first fought Germany at the beginning of the war. While the Western Front has been a fact on the ground for weeks, the British Royal Navy is sure that the Kaiser’s Zeppelins will soon be pummeling London the way they have already bombed Liege and Antwerp, and has already conducted the world’s very first strategic bombing raids to preempt the threat.

This is the third such mission conducted under a policy formulated by Winston Churchill himself. France also knows that it is only a matter of time until the Zeppelins bomb Paris, but they have given their ally the first shot at hitting the factory sheds near Friedrichshafen and provided logistical support to the operation.

Four Avro 504s with 80 horsepower Gnome engines arrived in France two weeks ago. Delivered to a French dirigible shed under cover of darkness in order to avoid prying eyes, they have been ready for a week, but the mission has been held back due to poor weather conditions. With a favorable barometer, they are taken out this morning and put through trials; one pilot fails to take off and damages the skids of his plane, scrubbing his flight.

After taking off at five minute intervals, the three remaining airplanes are soon spotted by Germans on the ground. By the time they reach Lake Constance, the garrison has already been warned of their approach — and machine guns and riflemen have been deployed around the target zone.

A zeppelin parked in a floating hanger prior to the war

A Zeppelin parked in the floating hanger on Lake Constance prior to the war

Although today’s operation takes place on a much smaller scale than the massive bombing campaigns that will happen in future decades, all the elements of those missions — detailed mission planning, early warning, air defense, and controversy — are already in place today. The mission route doglegs around the territory of neutral Switzerland, a 250-mile lap that is just at the limits of the Avro 504’s operational range. During the two previous Zeppelin hunting missions, British pilots have freely violated Dutch airspace and even lost one bomb that fell out of its wire rack while flying over Holland to hit the sheds at Cologne and Dusseldorf.

The risk of crashing in mountainous Switzerland is reckoned too great, yet the Swiss still protest false reports of an airspace violation. This is probably due to confusion at the scene, for the German defenders report that as many as six aircraft have attacked the factory. The British government denies the charge, but covers its proverbial behind-parts by citing the indecision of the International Congress of 1910 on the question of airspace boundaries. Neither Squadron Commander Lieutenant Edward Featherstone Briggs’s flight plan, or the pilots’ flight logs, contradicts the British assertion that their planes have avoided Swiss airspace.

In a speech two days from now, Winston Churchill also cites an unnamed Swiss engineer as a witness to the raid’s success when he tells the House of Commons that the raid has destroyed a hydrogen plant and done heavy damage to the factory. But these claims are false: there has merely been some damage to a shed, but all of the Zeppelins are quite safe and sound. It is not clear whether this false report was ever actually made: Churchill is in political trouble for his abortive folly at Antwerp — and for his disastrous fleet deployments in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Clearly, he is eager to repeat good news resulting from his decisions.

Operational plan of the Freidrichshafen raid today

Operational plan of the Freidrichshafen raid today

Lieutenant Sidney Sippe’s flight log records that at 11:30 AM, he

Arrived extreme end of lake and came down to within 10 feet of water. Continued at this height over lake, passing Constance at a very low altitude, as considered less likelihood of being seen. Crossed lake and hugged north shore until five miles from objective. Started climb and reached 1,200 feet. Observed twelve or fourteen shrapnels bursting slightly north of Friedrichshafen. Presumed these were directed against No. 873.

Indeed, the Avro bearing that number is being flown by Lieutenant Briggs, who is shot down and wounded by heavy ground fire that holes his gas tank. His captors treat him very well, but Briggs’s war is over. The next entry in Sippe’s log, 25 minutes later, describes his two passes at his target — a maneuver that confuses the Germans on the ground about the number of attacking planes.

When half a mile from sheds put machine into dive, and came down to 700 feet. Observed men lined up to right of shed, number estimated 300-500. Dropped one bomb in enclosure to put gunners off aim, and, when in correct position, two into works and shed. The fourth bomb failed to release. During this time very heavy fire, mitrailleuse [edit: machine gun] and rifle, was being kept up, and shells were being very rapidly fired. Dived and flew north until out of range of guns, then turned back to waterside shed to try and release fourth bomb. Bomb would not release; was fired on by two machine guns (probably mitrailleuse), dived down to surface of lake and made good my escape.

Aerial bombing is so new that the weapons themselves are still too primitive and unreliable to get the job done, and no one has experience yet in shooting down airplanes. Sippe lands safely in Belfort two hours later along with Lt. John Babington, the pilot of Avro number 875 (see top, second from right), whose bombs also missed their mark. Even though the men have done no real damage to the Kaiser’s airships, they are pioneers of many bloody bombing campaigns to come.

An Avro 504 biplane like the ones flown in today's raid

An Avro 504 biplane like the ones flown in today’s raid. Note the fuel tank is actually right above the pilot