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The War Machines

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The War Machines
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Author(s): Willis J. Abbot
Date Published: 2010/04
Page Count: 376
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-125-6
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-126-3

War from the air—war from beneath the waves

For thousands of years warfare had been the business of armies of foot and horse soldiers whilst the seas and oceans were contested by the collision of navies propelled by wind, sail and oars. The industrial age of the mid-nineteenth century brought in a new era where technology would find its way into every aspect of the life of mankind. Predictably that did not exclude the business of killing. In the development of the aircraft and the submarine new, hitherto impossible dimensions were attained and their influence removed the limitations of warfare confined only to the surface of our planet. This excellent and substantial book charts the development and wartime proving of submarines and aircraft in the most detailed way, up to and including, in some detail, their operational use during the First World War. This account includes many diagrams, illustrations and photographs which are sure to captivate anyone interested in the Great War of the machines.

The real measure of the effectiveness of anti-aircraft guns may be judged by the comparative immunity that attended the aviators engaged on the two early British raids on Friedrichshaven, the seat of the great Zeppelin works on Lake Constance, and on the German naval base at Cuxhaven. The first was undertaken by three machines. From Belfort in France, the aviators turned into Germany and flew for 120 miles across hostile territory. The flight was made by day though indeed the adventurous aviators were favoured by a slight mist. Small single seated “avro” machines were used, loaded heavily with bombs as well as with the large amount of fuel necessary for a flight which before its completion would extend over 250 miles. Not only at the frontier, but at many fortified positions over which they passed, they must have exposed themselves to the fire of artillery, but until they actually reached the neighbourhood of the Zeppelin works they encountered no fire whatsoever. There the attack on them was savage and well maintained. On the roofs of the gigantic factory, on neighbouring hillocks and points of vantage there were anti-aircraft guns busily discharging shrapnel at the invaders. It is claimed by the British that fearing this attack the Germans had called from the front in Flanders their best marksmen, for at that time the comparative worthlessness of the Zeppelin had not been demonstrated and the protection of the works was regarded as a prime duty of the army.<br>
The invading machines flew low above the factory roofs. The adventurers had come far on an errand which they knew would awaken the utmost enthusiasm among their fellows at home and they were determined to so perform their task that no charge of having left anything undone could possibly lie. Commander Briggs, the first of the aviators to reach the scene, flew as low as one hundred feet above the roofs, dropping his bombs with deadly accuracy. But he paid for his temerity with the loss of his machine and his liberty. A bullet pierced his petrol tank and there was nothing for him to do save to glide to earth and surrender. The two aviators who accompanied him although their machines were repeatedly hit were nevertheless able to drop all their bombs and to fly safely back to Belfort whence they had taken their departure some hours before. The measure of actual damage done in the raid has never been precisely known. Germany always denied that it was serious, while the British ascribe to it the greatest importance—a clash of opinion common in the war and which will for some years greatly perplex the student of its history.<br>
The second raid, that upon Cuxhaven, was made by seaplanes so far as the air fighting was concerned, but in it not only destroyers but submarines also took part. It presented the unique phenomenon of a battle fought at once above, upon, and below the surface of the sea. It is with the aerial feature of the battle alone that we have to do.<br>
Christmas morning, 1915, seven seaplanes were quietly lowered to the surface of the water of the North Sea from their mother ships a little before daybreak. The spot was within a few miles of Cuxhaven and the mouth of the River Elbe. As the aircraft rose from the surface of the water and out of the light mist that lay upon it, they could see in the harbour which they threatened, a small group of German warships. Almost at the same moment their presence was detected. The alarms of the bugles rang out from the hitherto quiet craft and in a moment with the smoke pouring from their funnels destroyers and torpedo boats moved out to meet the attack. Two Zeppelins rose high in the air surrounded by a number of the smaller aeroplanes, eager for the conflict. The latter proceeded at once to the attack upon the raiding air fleet, while the destroyers, the heavier Zeppelins, and a number of submarines sped out to sea to attack the British ships. The mist, which grew thicker, turned the combat from a battle into a mere disorderly raid, but out of it the seaplanes emerged unhurt. All made their way safely back to the fleet, after having dropped their bombs with a degree of damage never precisely known. The weakness of the seaplane is that on returning to its parent ship it cannot usually alight upon her deck, even though a landing platform has been provided. It must, as a rule, drop to the surface of the ocean, and if this be at all rough the machine very speedily goes to pieces. This was the case with four of the seven seaplanes which took part in the raid on Cuxhaven. All however delivered their pilots safely to the awaiting fleet and none fell a victim to the German anti-aircraft guns. <br>
In May of 1917, the British Royal Naval Air Service undertook the mapping of the coast of Belgium north from Nieuport, the most northerly seaport held by the British, to the southern boundary of Holland. This section of coast was held by the Germans and in it were included the two submarine bases of Zeebrugge and Ostend. At the latter point the long line of German trenches extending to the boundary of Switzerland rested its right flank on the sea. The whole coast north of that was lined with German batteries, snugly concealed in the rolling sand dunes and masked by the waving grasses of a barren coast. From British ships thirty miles out at sea, for the waters there are shallow and large vessels can only at great peril approach the shore, the seaplanes were launched. Just south of Nieuport a land base was established as a rendezvous for both air-and seaplanes when their day’s work was done. From fleet and station the aerial observers took their way daily to the enemy’s coast. Every mile of it was photographed. The hidden batteries were detected and the inexorable record of their presence imprinted on the films. The work in progress at Ostend and Zeebrugge, the active construction of basins, locks, and quays, the progress of the great mole building at the latter port, the activities of submarines and destroyers within the harbour, the locations of guns and the positions of barracks were all indelibly set down. These films developed at leisure were made into coherent wholes, placed in projecting machines, and displayed like moving pictures in the ward rooms of the ships hovering off shore, so that the naval forces preparing for the assault had a very accurate idea of the nature of the defences they were about to encounter.