STRATEGIC BOMBING IN WORLD WAR I - GERMANY:  Germany. World War I. 1914-1918.  German aerial bombardment efforts in the first years of World War I were limited in both scope and impact, much as was the case for the Allied air forces.  The limits of aircraft range and payload, the absence of effective bombsights, the lack of crew training, and the undeveloped state of military aviation theory and tactics all meant that initial attacks tended to be by single aircraft with limited bomb loads and little impact.  These initial efforts could hardly be categorized as strategic or even front level operational bombing, but they set the stage for much more effective operations later in the war.

The first city bomber appears not to have been a fixed wing aircraft; on 6 August 1914 a Zeppelin airship bombed Liege.  On 30 August 1914 aerial bombardment of cities by fixed wing aircraft commenced with an attack on Paris by a single German aircraft - 2 civilians were wounded.  Similar attacks on 31 August, 2 September, and 4 September had little military impact.  On 11 September a Zeppelin bombed the railroad center of Viljka and the City of Minsk on the Eastern front.  And on 14 October German aircraft attacked Warsaw.  However, 1915 was to mark the start of sustained bombing campaigns by German Naval Air Service and Army Air Service airships and eventually Army Air Service fixed wing bombers against targets well removed from the operational front lines to achieve strategic objectives.

On 1 January Kaiser Wilhelm authorized the bombardment on England, restricting operations to ports and military installations and specifically prohibiting attacks on London.  On 19 January German Navy Zeppelins L-3 and L-4 became the first of a long line of German bombers to cross the English coast in two World Wars, dropping 1320 pounds of high explosive bombs and additional incendiary bombs on Yarmouth and King's Lynn, killing 4 and wounding either 13 or 16.  By May 1915 the Kaiser removed the targeting restrictions against London, and on 31 May airship LZ-38 was the first German bomber to attack London, dropping 150 high explosive and incendiary bombs and killing and wounding 42.  Significant examples of airship attacks on England are summarized in Table 1.

Table 83-1.  Examples of Airship Attacks on England

Date Target Significance Airships Bombs Dropped Outcome Airships Lost
19 January 1915

Yarmouth

Kings Lynn

First attack on England

L-3

L-4

L-6 (abort)

660 pounds high explosive plus 18 incendiaries

4 killed

16 wounded

none
4 March 1915 England First loss to anti-aircraft fire L-8     L-8 damaged over Nieuport and crash landed in Belgium
31 May 1915

London

First attack on London

LZ-38

150 high explosive and incendiary bombs

42 killed and wounded

none
15 June 1915

River Tyne

Significant attack on industrial complex

L-10

L-11 (abort)

 

17 killed

72 injured

significant fires

none
9 August 1915

London

First coordinated mass raid

from Hage:

L-3 (other)

L-9 (other)

L-12 (other)

from Nordholz:

L-10 (other)

L-11 (other)

bombs dropped by L-9 on Goole

27 casualties

L-12
8 September 1915 London First use of very large bombs

L-9

L-11 (abort)

L-13

L-14 (abort)

4000 pounds of bombs including a 660 pound bomb   none
13 October 1915 London First attempt by fighters to intercept

4 airships (weather)

L-15

  199 killed and wounded none
31 January 1916 Midlands Large mass raid 9 airships  

183 killed and wounded

significant damage to military and commercial facilities

L-19
24 August 1916 London Largest mass raid to date

5 airships (weather)

7 airships (other)

L-31

  power station destroyed  
2 September 1916 London First intercept and destruction of airship by air defense fighters 16 airships     SL-11
23 September 1916 London and Midlands Destruction of airships by both anti-aircraft artillery and air defense fighters 12 airships   $500,000 of damage to London

L-33

L-32

19 October 1916 Midlands Silent raid - high altitude airships denied air defense normal sound detection and tracking - raid and return in a severe storm

L-41

L-44

L-45

L-46

L-47

L-49

L-50

L-52

L-53

L-54

L-55

 

London:

36 killed

60 wounded

Midlands:

damage to industrial facilities

L-44

L-45

L-49

L-50

L-55

Notes:  Under the Airships column of the table (abort) indicates airship turned back before reaching the target area due to engine or other problems, (other) that the airship hit a target other than the primary target, and (weather) that the attack was disrupted by weather.

The death of Captain Peter Strasser of the Naval Airship Division when the airship L-70 was shot down by a Royal Flying Corps De Havilland DH4 over Yarmouth on 5 August 1918 marked the end of German airship raids on England.  Given the limitations of airship technology, their vulnerability to weather, the difficulties of operating at high altitude, the vulnerability of hydrogen gas, and the limited navigation aids of the day, these airships and their crews achieved an outstanding operational record.  And they did so in spite of a 40 percent casualty rate - airship crashes as a result of onboard failures, weather, or hostile action typically killed all of those on board. 

The airship campaign against England also achieved significant strategic goals.  Although the actual bomb damage and casualty figures were insignificant by World War II standards, they had a noticeable psychological impact on the British public.  More importantly, the political requirements to protect the homeland from attack forced the diversion of large numbers of resources from the Western Front.  By December 1916, before fixed wing bombers started their air offensive, a total of 17,341 personnel were involved in home antiaircraft defense.  This included 12 Royal Flying Corps fighter squadrons, with 110 aircraft crewed and supported by 200 officers and 2000 enlisted men, and 12,000 artillerymen manning antiaircraft guns.  Captain Strasser clearly understood the impact of the airship campaign and maintained it in the face of considerable losses to force the British to divert resources from the front.    

From the start of World War I, German fixed wing aviators intended to conduct bombing operations over England.  Major Wilhelm Siegert was given command of the Fliegerkorps der Obersten Heersleitung (Flying Corps of the High Command), commonly known as the Englandgeschwader (England Wing).  Although this unit was never committed to strategic bombing over England, it provided an incubator for future bomber unit commanders.  There is, however, some evidence that the German Army Air Service attacked Staffordshire in 1915, killing 30 and injuring 50. 

As the Zeppelin met increasingly effective opposition, the German Army recognized that fixed wing bombers offered the best chance of sustaining strategic bombing operations.  General von Hoeppner appointed Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg to command the 30 aircraft of Kamfgeschwader 3 (Battle Wing 3) at Ghistelles, Belgium, in this attack.  Von Hoeppner defined the ambitious mission of the unit as:

Attacks against England by fixed wing aircraft as a sustained follow-up to the Zeppelin campaign  were initially scheduled to start on 1 February 1917; however, due to limited numbers of available aircraft, the first attack occurred on 25 May 1917 by 21 Gotha bombers intending to strike London, but diverted by bad weather to Shorncliffe and Folkestone.  Examples of bomber attacks against England are summarized in Table 2.

Table 83-2.  Representative Fixed Wing Bomber Attacks On England

Date Target Raid Size Damage Defenses Raiders Lost
25 May 1917

Shorncliffe

Folkestone

21 Gotha Bombers

95 killed

185 injured

$100,000 damage

AAA

77 fighters

none

5 June 1917

Shoeburyness

Sheerness

22 Gotha bombers

13 killed

34 injured

$25,000 damage

AAA

62 fighters

1 shot down

2 to landing accidents

13 June 1917

London

18 Gotha bombers

162 killed

432 injured

$650,000 damage

AAA

94 fighters

none

7 July 1917

London

21 Gotha bombers

57 killed

193 injured

$1,025,000 damage

2 fighters shot down

AAA

108 fighters

1 shot down

4 to landing accidents

3 September 1917 (night)

Chatham

4 Gotha bombers

132 killed

96 injured

$20,000 damage

 

 

4 September 1917 (night)

London

9 Gotha bombers

6000 pounds of bombs

19 killed

71 injured

$230,000 damage

 

1

28 September 1917 (night)

 

25 Gotha bombers

unknown number of R-aircraft

 

 

 

19 May 1918

Essex

Kent

Southend

London

38 Gotha bombers

2 single engined aircraft

3 R-aircraft

24,000 pounds of bombs

49 killed

177 injured

$886,585 damage

 

 

Notes:  AAA is the abbreviation for anti-aircraft artillery.  R aircraft indicates giant aircraft (Riesenflugzeuge), in operations against England generally the Zeppelin Staaken R.VI bomber.

During the summer of 1917 British defenses in the London area were strengthened to the degree that operations were shifted to night attacks.  Night attacks not only complicated the detection problem for the defense and degraded the accuracy of antiaircraft artillery fire, but, as a result, it allowed the bombers to operate at lower altitudes with savings in time and fuel.  Although night operations degraded the accuracy of bombing, but accuracy in daytime was so low that this impact was negligible.  The bomber force conducted 22 night attacks on England, ending in May 1918.  Three additional daylight reconnaissance raids were conducted before German air attacks ceased in July 1918.

Table 83-3.  Results of Strategic Air Attacks on England in World War I

  Number of Air Raids Bombs Dropped Killed and Injured Damage Attackers Lost
Airships 52 225 tons

557 killed

1358 injured

$7.5 million

17 shot down

66 to weather, accidents, or attacks on bases

Fixed Wing Bombers 52

82 tons

2772 bombs

857 killed

2058 injured

$7 million

24 shot down

37 to accidents

Notes:  Data on tonnage dropped and value of damage is approximate and should be viewed as relatively illustrative, not authoritative.

In operations against France, night attacks on Paris by Friedrichshafen G.III equipped units started in early 1917 and continued until the armistice in November 1918.

It is worth noting that the two sides in the German attacks on England drew significantly different lessons from the Zeppelin and bomber campaigns.  German air combat theorists assessed the results and came to the conclusion that the strategic results did not justify the resource expenditure.  The enforced disestablishment of the German air forces following World War I, the personal relationship of aviation officers to the Army out of which many of them had come, and the already developed mindset that characterized aviation as a support to the ground forces, led to the Luftwaffe's failure to develop a true strategic heavy bomber force.  Even though the Luftwaffe provided the benchmark examples of air attacks on cities at Guernica and Warsaw, these operations were tied to ground force objectives. 

At the same time the leaders of the emerging British Royal Air Force drew precisely the opposite lesson - that bomber forces attacking the enemy's homeland were a powerful strategic tool.  In their struggle to retain independence as a separate service, this strategic airpower doctrine made organizational, political, and war-fighting sense to leaders who had seen Zeppelins and Gothas over London.   As a result the Royal Air Force developed some of the most effective heavy strategic bomber aircraft flown by any combatant in World War II.

For the civil defenses of the combatants in World War II this resulted in a subtle difference in the outcomes.  The British Air Raid Precautions services faced a less capable enemy than they might have, had the Germans learned the appropriate lessons about the capabilities of heavy bombers.  On the other hand the Luftschutz faced a far more dangerous opponent with a will to sustain strategic attacks regardless of cost than they might have had England never been bombed.

Sources: Cooksley, Peter, German Bombers of World War I: in action, Carrollton, Texas, United States of America, Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 2000.  Longstreet, Stephen, The Canvas Falcons: The Men and Planes of WWI, New York, New York, United States of America, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1995.  Cross, Wilbur, Zeppelins of World War I, New York, New York, United States of America, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1991.  Boyne, Walter J., Colonel, The Influence of Air Power upon History, New York, New York, United States of America, Pelican Publishing Company, 2003.

Entry 0383 - updated 12 August 2003