The best-known German strategic bombing campaign during World War I was the campaign against England, although strategic bombing raids were carried out or attempted on other fronts. The main campaign against England started in January 1915 using airships. From then until the end of World War I the German Navy and Army Luftstreitkräfte mounted over 50 bombing raids on the United Kingdom. These were generally referred to as “Zeppelin raids”: although both Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships were used, the Zeppelin company was much better known and was responsible for producing the majority of the airships used. Weather conditions and night flying conditions made airship navigation and maintaining bombing accuracy difficult. Bombs were often dropped miles off target (one raid on London actually bombed Hull) and accurate targeting of military installations was impossible. The civilian casualties made the Zeppelins an object of hatred, and they were dubbed “baby-killers”. With the development of effective defensive measures the airship raids became increasingly hazardous, and in 1917 the airships were largely replaced by aeroplanes.
On 25 May, the German air force commenced Operation Turkenkreuz, sending 23 Gothas to bomb London. Two were forced to turn back over the North Sea due to mechanical difficulties and cloud over London caused the remaining bombers to divert to secondary targets at the Channel port of Folkestone and the nearby Shorncliffe Army Camp. The raid resulted in 95 deaths and 195 injuries, mostly in Folkestone. In Shorncliffe, 18 soldiers (16 Canadian and two British) were killed and 90 were wounded. Nine Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Sopwith Pups engaged the bombers near the Belgian coast as they returned, shooting one down.
A second attack on 5 June was diverted to Sheerness in Kent but a third raid on 13 June, was the first daylight raid on London, causing 162 deaths and 432 injuries. Among the dead were 18 children, killed by a bomb falling on a primary school in Poplar. This was the deadliest air raid of the war and no Gothas were lost.
News of the raid was received enthusiastically in Germany and Brandenburg was summoned to Berlin to be awarded the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military honour. On taking off for the return journey, the engine of his aircraft failed, Brandenburg was severely injured and his pilot, Oberleutnant Freiherr von Trotha, was killed.
The reason for the relatively large numbers of casualties seems to have been ignorance as to the threat posed by aerial bombardment of a city in daylight. Lt. Charles Chabot, a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot on leave recorded that: “…Raids hadn’t become a very serious thing and everybody crowded out into the street to watch. They didn’t take cover or dodge”.
As there had been little planning, early attempts to intercept the Gothas were ineffective. Large numbers of British aircraft were put into the air but were unable to climb high enough to engage the bombers. Captain James McCudden was part of the engaging force of 92 aircraft but due to the limited performance of his machine, had no success in intercepting the bombers.
Further attacks by both Airships and the new Gotha heavy bombers continued on English shores.