Air Wars Over Essex

On Monday 22nd July 2019, Roger Smith came and gave an interesting talk about The Air War over Essex 1915-1918. He explained that Air War associated with the 1914-18 conflict was essentially the first Battle of Britain with very basic flying machines developed only 10 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Essex was the site of early bombing raids by the Germans due to its East London location and the Kaiser’s initial reluctance to upset his cousin by bombing central London. Bombs were first dropped by the FF29 aeroplane in December 1914, first in the channel missing land, then in Kent with the first bombing casualty being a lady who died of shock rather than injury.

An airship bombed Maldon in April 1915 with 20 incendiary bombs from 5,000ft as a hit or miss affair with no devices for bomb aiming accuracy. Other airships bombed Southend twice in May resulting in 3 deaths and 4 injured. In August Southend was hit again by an airship turning back from anti aircraft fire at Chatham Docks its initial target. Other raids in Essex mentioned were on Harwich, 1915, Ongar and Harwich, 1916 and Harwich, 1917.

Zeppelins were used by the German Air Corp and Navy. They were from 500ft to 700ft long, filled with up to 2 million cubic ft of Hydrogen, flying at up to 60mph at 13,000ft to 20,000ft with crew of 20 and carrying up to 6,000 lb of bombs. The Gotha G.V. bomber took over from airships and flew at 80mph with crew of 3 followed by the Zeppelin-Staaken Giant bomber with 4 push and pull engines flying at 84mph, crew of 7, wingspan 138ft, range 500miles and eventual altitude of 14,000ft, after a few hours of slow climbing in circles before entering British air space.

Air raid detection was primitive and at first by observation from either Royal Flying Corps or Army in France, ships in the channel or civilians seeing or hearing bombers on their way to Britain and relaying a message by radio or telephone. Position, height and direction could not be tracked and interception was rare. Without radios British pilots’ last briefing was before take off. Eventually parabola dishes on the south coast could hear aircraft up to 26 miles away. Local air raid warnings were a Policeman on a bike blowing a whistle or Boy Scouts on bikes with a bugle. There were no air raid shelters but houses with basements were offered as a safe place to gather during a raid.

British Aerodromes in Essex comprised of 3 Royal Navy Air Service bases located in the main river estuaries, 6 Royal Flying Corps fighter bases and a number of emergency landing grounds thinly staffed. Stow Maries is the only WW1 base still in existence and not developed for use in WW11. There were 5 British aeroplanes developed or designed for warfare. The BE2 designed in 1912 was originally used for reconnaissance only and not armed. The BE12 flew at 82mph up to 9,000ft with one fairly useless Lewis gun that could only fire at set angles without damaging the plane. The Sopwith Pup with a gun that could fire through the propeller flew at 105mph, altitude 17,00ft. The Sopwith Camel designed in March 1917 flew at 120mph, altitude 21,000ft, with 2 Vickers machine guns. The SE5a flew at 120mph, altitude 1,950ft, with 2 guns.

Zeppelins were eventually successfully brought down using incendiary bullets developed by ‘Brock’ of Fireworks fame. Rockets were also used, fired from the top wing of a Camel. Five Zeppelins were brought down in Essex the SL11, L32,L33,L31 and L48. Three Gotha bombers were also brought down in Rochford, Wickford and East Ham.