An Ansaldo SVA, of the type that made the flight over Lake Constance.
May 21 1918, Brescia–Battlefield aerial reconnaissance was one of the primary roles of both sides’ air forces during the war–detecting enemy troop movements, mapping their defenses, and artillery spotting, among other tasks. As airplane ranges increased, reconnaissance could be taken deeper into enemy territory–to get a sense of their economic activity, or to scout targets for future strategic bombing attacks. On May 21, two Italian planes flew north over the Alps to the area around Lake Constance, taking pictures of multiple targets in the area, including the Germans’ Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen, returning safely to Italy after a 440-mile flight. On the same day, a German airplane flew over London on a similar mission in a 375-mile round trip. Although London was bristling with air defenses at this point, most attacks were now at night, and their small craft went undetected at a mile’s altitude over the city.
Pictured – USS Christabel, who proudly bears a white star on her smokestack as credit for one submarine defeated.
A little ship became an unlikely hero on May 21 1918 when the armed yacht USS Christabel drove off a German submarine attacking an Allied convoy. The former civilian yacht served as the rear guard for a slow British steamer convoy sailing through Quiberon Bay, in the heart of U-boat hunting territory when Lieutenant Commander M.B. McCord spotted an oil slick in the water, a sign that a German sub was prowling around.
McCord’s fast ship sailed over and dropped depth charges, which exploded but seemed to hit nothing. Two hours later, a lookout spotted a periscope rising from the water. This time McCord’s depth charges struck home when a “very violent” explosion rose up through the water. The German submarine was mortally wounded but managed to reach Spain, where the crew were interned. One American sailor named Daniel Sullivan earned the Medal of Honor for jumping on a depth charge which accidentally fell on deck and securing it before it could detonate.
The leaders of the Judenburg revolt being led to their execution on May 16.
May 20 1918, Pécs–The end of the war in the East meant that German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war were now slowly being repatriated to their home countries. This was a major source of manpower for the struggling Austro-Hungarian armies, as more than 2.1 million men prepared to return. However, the Army was highly concerned that the PoWs might bring back Bolshevik ideas with them from Russia, and established a quarantine system for them. They were held in camps with poor rations and little or no new clothing for several weeks while the authorities determined whether they had deserted or were Bolsheviks, before being eventually granted four weeks’ leave at home. This pervasive message of mistrust towards the returning PoWs did not increase their enthusiasm for the war effort. This was compounded by the continuing food shortage, which did not spare the regular army.
In the late spring, there were many mutinies among units with high proportions of returned PoWs. On May 12, a group of 1200 Slovene soldiers (normally some of the Empire’s most loyal troops) ransacked the town of Judenberg. One of the ringleaders rallied others in the barracks to the cause:
Come on lads, get dressed. We’re going home. We’re doing it not just for us but as a favor to the comrades at the front. The war has to be ended now….Whoever’s a Slovene should come with.
On May 20, around 1500 troops of the 6th Infantry Regiment, which contained many returned Serb PoWs, refused to be sent to the front seized the arsenal and food stores in Pécs. The local miners armed themselves and joined the revolt as well; it would take three loyal Hungarian regiments to suppress them.
May 20, 1918 – Germany Sends Aid to Russian White Forces
Pictured – Soldiers of the Volunteer Army in South Russia in 1918.
The Russian Civil War is a baffling topic for historians. Although in collective memory it is often seen simplistically as a battle between monarchist Whites and communist Reds, in reality it was an anarchic conflict with many factions that constantly switched sides. One example: the White movement was a loose confederation of governments, armies, and warlords who all wanted to topple the Bolsheviks. Rather than re-instating the Tsar the initial reason for many of the White armies to form was rejection of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and a continued desire to fight the Germans.
Meanwhile the Germans had encouraged Lenin’s revolution from afar and then made peace with the Bolsheviks. By May 1918, however, socialist revolution looking likely to spread through Russia and into the Central Powers’ empires. Suddenly the Bolsheviks became more potential threat than ally. At the same time, the Allies considered whether the Bolsheviks might make more useful allies against Germany than the scattered and poorly-organized Whites. In May Germany send thousands of rifles and fifteen million roubles to the Volunteer Army, a warband of officers and Cossacks in South Russia. Before the sides of the Russian Civil War had even taken shape they are already being mixed up.
May 19 1918, London–German bombers had not attacked Britain since the start of their major offensives on the Western Front, using them instead to attack targets of military value in France and Flanders. With the Western Front momentarily quiet once more, the Gothas returned to London on the night of May 19; 38 Gothas took off from Belgium and 28 successfully reached London, where their bombs caused over 200 casualties. However, the Gothas did not get away unscathed; British AA fire took down two of them and British interceptors another three.
This was to be the last Gotha raid on London–as Ludendorff turned his attention once more to the French, the Gothas were assigned to targets on the continent–either Paris or targets of military value. One such raid occurred on the same night, when another 15 Gothas attacked the major British base at Étaples, causing over 900 casualties in a hospital there among nurses and British wounded. The start of British bombing raids on German cities may also have played a role; there was significant political pressure to stop the attacks on Britain in a vain hope the British would follow suit.
May 19, 1918 – Conference of the Suppressed Nations in Prague
Pictured – From one empire to many nations.
On the heels of anti-Austrian mutinies in the Hapsburg military, and then a humiliating treaty making Austria subservient to Germany, a provocatively named Conference of the Suppressed Nations opened in Prague. A chief source of pressure on the aging empire was the American President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which promised ethnic self-determination and thus gave encouragement to the “submerged nations” of Eastern and Central Europe. A worrying note for young emperor Karl was that the break-up of the empire was becoming a cross-class movement, with the working-class supporting a Bolshevik-style revolution and the bourgeoisie turning to nationalist politics.
May 18 1918, Cologne–After nearly a year of Gotha raids on London, the British were determined to retaliate against Germany. Although Berlin was out of reach for the Allies, Western Germany was not. On May 18, six British DH4s attacked Cologne in daylight, dropping 34 bombs and causing well over 100 casualties. The attack took the Germans by surprise, and the British even managed to shoot down two German fighters on the return trip. This was not to be an isolated attack–the British were already making plans for a dedicated strategic bombing force, to be led by former RAF head Hugh Trenchard.
May 18, 1918 – Strategic British Bombing Campaign Begins Over Germany
Pictured – The Airco DH.4 was Britain’s main bomber of the war. It was also the craft flown by W.E. Johns, the author of the famous Biggles stories.
In April, Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to wreak revenge on Germany, paying it back for its bombing raids over England “with compound interest.” The campaign began on May 18, 1918, when 33 RAF bombers hit Cologne, killing 110 civilians. The next night 28 superheavy Gotha bombers retaliated on London, killing 48 people.A ten-year-old schoolboy named Desmond Flower watched the killers maneuver far overhead. The German flyers had to pass across several belts of anti-aircraft defenses the British has positioned around the city.
The guns “barked continually at the giants lumbering overhead;” Flower remembered. “Shell fragments pattered down like rain, but that would never prevent father from parading around outside to see what was going on, however much we impolred him to come in. One night I stayed awake for a long time listening to a bomber groaning round and round trying to find a way out of the box barrage in which it was caught; it did not succeed – when it was shot down the droning stopped and I went back to sleep.”
Europeans – both civilians and airmen – were getting a taste of the bombing wars which would define their 20th century.