The Cuxhaven Raid
A Recollection of the Early Days of Britain’s Fighting Force of the Air
By The Legionary
February 1st, 1927
During the early part of the war the chief duty of the Harwich Force was to scout in the German Bight, in order to give notice of any movement of the enemy’s surface craft. Many were the incursions into the Bight, and all without result.
Towards the end of November, 1914, a plan was evolved at the Admiralty to make a determined assault on the Cuxhaven aerodromes by means of seaplanes, and by this means possibly to bring on a meeting between the two fleets.
This affair, known as the Cuxhaven Raid, was planned to take place on 22nd November, 1914, but after an abortive attempt, of which more hereafter, it did not actually take place until Christmas day.
This was the first naval air raid into the enemy’s country; it caused considerable alarm and excitement in Germany, and was the forerunner of many others.
The Harwich Force was detailed to escort three seaplane carriers to a position twelve miles due west of Heligoland, which was considered to be a suitable position to commence operations.
It must be borne in mind that in the early stages of the war seaplanes were in their infancy. Long flights had not previously been attempted, and the machines in use in those days would be looked on as prehistoric at the present time. Their engines were faulty, their speed was slow, and their radius of action very limited. They carried no armament, and their only means of offensive action was by dropping bombs – if we except the revolvers carried by the pilot and his observer, and possibly a couple of rifles.
Three seaplane carriers – Engadine, Riviera and Empress of India – were hurriedly fitted out for the enterprise, each carrying three seaplanes of the “Fairy” type. Their hangars were merely canvas affairs, and afforded little protection from wind and weather.
After some preliminary and very necessary drill at hoisting in and out the seaplanes, the Harwich Force, consisting of the Arethusa, Fearless, Undaunted, and twelve torpedo boat destroyers, in company with the three seaplane carriers, sailed from Harwich on the evening of the 22nd November, with the intention of arriving at the pre-arranged starting point half an hour before daylight on the following morning.
All went well, except that the rain, which descended in torrents during the night, penetrated the canvas hangars and caused the wings of the machines to become what is known in the Air Service as “soggy,” incidentally greatly increasing the weight of the machines.
In due course the squadron arrived at the position already mentioned – apparently undiscovered by the enemy; no patrol vessels or scouts of any sort were seen during the night, nor was there any visible sign of the enemy.
The searchlights of Heligoland were clearly visible, but the distance prevented their beams disclosing our presence to the enemy, although even at that distance of twelve miles their glare was sufficient to light up the squadron – and a very unpleasant feeling it was to us.
Very strict orders had been issued as to the procedure of the aircraft, and nothing had been left to chance. The commodore’s ship “Arethusa,” signalled when the machines were to be hoisted out, when they were to start their engines, and also when they were to commence their perilous flight. Any machines that were unable to rise off the water fifteen minutes from the signal to fly were definitely ordered to return to their parent vessel, and to be hoisted aboard forthwith.
Everything went like a clock; the weather was fine, and, except for a slight swell, the sea was unruffled.
On arriving at the position twelve miles west of Heligoland, the seaplane carriers stopped engines, while the squadron destroyers slowly circled round to guard them from submarine attack. It seemed incredible that, now being broad daylight, there was no visible sign of the enemy. The sea was absolutely deserted, and to our strained nerves it seemed that the appalling noise of nine seaplanes taxying in the vicinity of their parent ships was loud enough to be heard in Berlin, let alone Heligoland, and the High Sea Fleet, lying peacefully at anchor in the Schilling Roads, some thirty miles distant.
The machines were hoisted out, their engines started, and in due course the signal was made for them to fly. The noise was deafening, the minutes went slowly – something seemed to be wrong – not a single machine appeared to be able to take off from the water! Accordingly, at the scheduled time, the commodore ordered them all to return to their parent ships, where they were quickly hoisted in, and the squadron departed for home, feeling somewhat depressed by a complete failure – in fact, a fiasco.
Nevertheless much valuable experience had been gathered. It was definitely proved that the machines had been overloaded, and this, combined with soggy wings, had been their undoing. It was also fairly certain the enemy had no idea of our proceedings.
This failure merely fired all concerned to make another effort. Drastic measures were taken to reduce weights in the seaplanes; wireless sets were discarded; fewer bombs were carried, and petrol was reduced to the lowest estimate for the distance to be flown, the hangars were also improved, and in a few days’ time all was in readiness for another start.
Bad weather and other causes prevented the next attempt taking place until Christmas Day. The squadron sailed for the same destination on the evening of the 24th December, in weather which the most optimistic would have said was hopeless, but our leader gave the orders, and we were content to follow his directions. We knew that he was provided with the latest weather forecast, and it undoubtedly turned up trumps. We sailed in a strong northeast wind and heavy sea, but the further we got away from our own coast the more the weather improved, and by 4 a.m. it was a clear night and a flat calm.
At 4 a.m. speed was reduced to twelve knots, and soon afterwards we realized that this time we were not going to arrive at our destination unobserved by the enemy. Several patrol vessels were observed, and all scurried off in the direction of Heligoland, making frantic signals by wireless. We wondered at the time why these patrol vessels were not attacked, but afterwards realized the danger of scattering our destroyers on a very dark night, and the great difficulty they would have had in rejoining the squadron in the dark.
It was now 4:30 a.m., and we still had two hours steaming at twelve knots in order to arrive at our destination at zero hour. One thing was certain – the enemy was aware of our approach! We knew that there were strong destroyer forces in Heligoland Harbor, and that the High Sea Fleet was at anchor in Schilling Roads. The nearer we approached Heligoland the stronger grew the glare of their very powerful searchlights.
The problem was, “What would our leader do? Would he give up and try again another time, or would he stand on?” It seemed merely tempting Providence to continue under the present conditions; but no signal was made, and we stood on to what most of us thought would prove to be our certain destruction.
I need hardly say that by this time our nerves were keyed up to a high state of tension. The wireless officer reported that the air was thick with wireless. It seemed as if the clocks had stopped – the minutes crawled by so slowly.
Suddenly a dim light was sighted ahead on the horizon. It was almost a relief to see something besides the Heligoland searchlights, which were now above the horizon. What was this light? It grew in size, and appeared to be rising, and looked like a miniature moon. Was it a Zeppelin? It must be remembered that in those days none of us had ever seen a Zeppelin, and had very little idea what to expect from them. Gradually the light rose, and it was soon clear to everybody that it had nothing to do with a surface craft.
I heard the commodore inquire of the navigating officer what its bearing was; the reply was “due east,” and almost in the same breath he said, “Oh, I know what it is. This is Christmas Day and that is the Star of the East, probably magnified by fog over the land!” “That’s good enough for me,” replied the commodore and we stood on.
6 a.m. – Faint signs of dawn were now approaching; the searchlights lighting up the squadron, but we knew that we were still invisible to the enemy. Only another six miles to go! What sort of reception should we get? Would we meet the eight German destroyer flotillas backed up by the whole of the Heligoland fleet? There had been plenty of time for them to meet us if they had been in a state readiness when they heard of our approach!
We crept on. Two miles from our stopping place the Fearless, Undaunted and destroyers, by pre-arranged orders, turned away and left the Arethusa along with the carriers. Exactly at schedule time the squadron stopped, and the carriers were ordered to hoist out their machines. Hardly was this signal made when two unmistakable torpedo tracks were seen approaching the Arethusa on the starboard bow. A smart movement of the helm saved the situation, and we had the satisfaction of seeing the two torpedo tracks pass, one on either side of the ship. Destroyers were ordered to close, and to keep the lurking submarine down during the operation of unloading aircraft.
It was now dawn; the flying conditions were all that could be desired – a light easterly breeze and a perfectly calm sea.
You can imagine the horizon was thoroughly scanned by all who were not otherwise employed, and, to our astonishment – and, I admit, my relief – not a sign was to be seen of surface craft. It seemed incredible and too good to be true! Where were the enemy, and what were were they doing?
The minutes sped slowly by; the machines were all taxying about, making a hideous din; would the clock never go on? At last the signal was made for them to fly. Would they be able to rise this time? Yes – there’s one up, and there’s another, and in a very short space of time nine were in the air and speeding due east on their most perilous journey. The other two failed to rise, and at the expiration of the allotted time were recalled and hoisted on board their parent ships. I know that every one sighed a sign of relief when the squadron was once more under way and proceeding at full speed for a position near the island of Ameland, where it had been arranged to meet the aircraft. By steaming the full speed of the carriers, we could just arrive at this position at the same time as the aircraft; but, would we get there undisturbed?
It was now 8 a.m., and a lovely morning and nothing in sight! Yes, there is – that’s a Zeppelin, and there’s another just behind; and what are those dots just above the horizon and over Heligoland? They must be aircraft, and sure enough in the next half-hour we were attacked by numerous aeroplanes, seaplanes, and the two Zeppelins. They approached rapidly, and undeterred by the futile fire from our heavy armament, and having passed our guns’ extreme elevation, they had nothing whatever to oppose them. In those early days of the war no ship had anti-aircraft guns. They certainly had the easiest of targets, and fairly plastered the squadron with bombs, some of which missed by feet only, but all burst harmlessly as they struck the water. Not a single direct hit – only a few splinters that did no harm. I had never seen a Zeppelin before, and certainly do not want to see one again – not so close! They, I presume, realized that once clear of our heavy gun fire, they were immune from attack except by rifle fire.
Never before or after did aircraft have such a unique chance at surface craft absolutely unarmed from overhead attack. Whether our rifle fire had any effect I am unable to say, but I personally emptied many magazines into the bellies of those Zeppelins at a distance at which it seemed impossible to miss.
We were attacked by several submarines, but our star was still in the ascendant, as they scored no hits. One submarine came up almost alongside the Arethusa, but she escaped apparently unharmed by our guns, which could not be sufficiently depressed to hit her.
A sharp lookout was kept in the direction of Heligoland, and still no sign of surface craft, great or small. It seemed incredible that the enemy would allow a weak hostile squadron to operate for hours in close proximity to the whole of the High Sea Fleet and its attendant masses of cruisers and torpedo boat destroyers without making the slightest offensive effort.
After many aircraft attacks, and when, I presume, they exhausted their supply of bombs, they retired in the direction of Heligoland and left us entirely to our own devices.
We arrived at the rendezvous in the nick of time, as we sighted one of our seaplanes in the act of descending, and shortly afterwards another one arrived, followed by two others in rapid succession. The crew of the fifth was picked up by one of our submarines, several of which had been stationed at intervals along the coast for the double purpose of attacking any enemy surface craft which might appear, and which might, for various reasons, have had to make a forced landing. The sixth was picked up in a like manner, and this only left one to be accounted for. We searched the coast thoroughly, without success, and eventually, with much reluctance, left her to her fate – the best we could even hope for the crew being that they were prisoners in Germany.
Our luck held good; four days later good news arrived. The missing seaplane had been obliged to make a forced landing near Heligoland, and, extraordinary good fortune, her crew had been picked up by a Dutch fishing vessel and were duly landed in Holland. Having been picked up outside territorial waters, they were permitted to return to England as ordinary shipwrecked mariners.
The stories of the gallant pilots and their observers were worth hearing. All had had most exiting adventures, and had been constantly under fire. They had caused some damage to our enemies, besides filling them with apprehension of what was to come later.
The sudden appearance of hostile aircraft over the High Sea Fleet at anchor in Schilling Roads apparently created a panic, which resulted in a collision between the battle cruiser Van Der Tann and a cruiser, the former being badly damaged and put out of action for over three months.
We were lucky from start to finish, as we left Harwich in foul weather and returned in a gale which sprang up very shortly after we had given up searching for the missing seaplane.
Although the damage done by the aircraft did not amount to anything serious, this attack created an immense sensation in Germany, and was the forerunner of other air attacks from the sea.