Category: ww1 centenary

Americans Suffer only Major Warship Loss of th…

The San Diego.

July 19 1918, Fire Island–After U-151′s stunning successes off New Jersey, the Germans continued their U-boat campaign off the Eastern Seaboard with the few U-boats they had with sufficient range.  In July, the U-156 laid a series of mines off of the southern coast of Long Island.  On July 19, the cruiser San Diego was about 9 miles south of Fire Island, en route to escort a convoy bound for Europe from New York.  She was of little military use in the convoy, as she had no real anti-submarine capabilities and would be outmatched against any modern German surface ships.  At 11:10 AM, there was an explosion on the port side, below the waterline.  She quickly took on a list and sank in twenty-eight minutes.  Six men were killed in the sinking; the remainder of the 1250-man crew were quickly rescued.

A local naval air reserve unit, comprised mainly of Yale students, was alerted to the possible presence of a German submarine, and attempted to find the culprit from the air.  They thought they found a submarine lurking on the seabed, and dropped some bombs. It turned out to be the wreck of the San Diego; thankfully they did not hit any of the survivors.  

The captain of the San Diego held that the ship had been torpedoed, and more outlandish theories involved German sabotage, but the most likely culprit has always been a mine from U-156.  The Navy has been conducting another investigation of the wreck that they had hoped to complete in time for the 100th anniversary to finally pinpoint the cause.  The wreck has been a popular one for divers due to its close proximity to New York.  However, as the ship capsized while sinking, it is upside down on the sea floor, making it very dangerous to explore inside; more divers have been killed while exploring the wreck than were lost in the sinking itself.

Two days later, U-156, by then off the coast of Massachusetts, would shell the town of Orleans on Cape Cod.  The attack would cause no damage (the shells falling harmlessly in a marsh and on the beach), but it would mark the only time the continental US was attacked during World War I.

Earlier Today: British Launch Carrier Attack on Zeppelin Base

Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel; The New York Times (includes image credit).

The skeleton of a German airship in the wake o…

The skeleton of a German airship in the wake of the Tondern raid, July 19 1918.

The British battlecruiser HMS Furious, equippe…

The British battlecruiser HMS Furious, equipped with a flight deck to serve as the first aircraft carrier that airplanes could land on.

RAF mechanics of the 149th Night Bombing Squad…

RAF mechanics of the 149th Night Bombing Squadron ready detonators on bombs before a raid.

AJuly 19, 1918 – British Unveil New Secret Wea…

AJuly 19, 1918 – British Unveil New Secret Weapon – the Aircraft Carrier – to Attack Zeppelin Base

Pictured – The seven Sopwith Camels of the Tondern Raid on the flight deck of HMS Furious.

Curiously the German Navy’s most potent weapon during the First World War travelled by air, not by sea. While the High Seas Fleet was shut up in port in Wilhelmshaven, the navy’s Zeppelin airships could strike out at England. The British ringed London with anti-aircraft guns and equipped night fighters to destroy the raiders, but shooting down the high-flying airships at night was always a difficult task.

So the Royal Navy decided to strike back with a new secret weapon: the aircraft carrier. The navy had experimented with platforms on ships that could allow airplanes to take off – and more importantly, land again at sea. Aircraft carriers that could launch ships had already been used in the war, but carried seaplanes which could land in the water. The ability to actually return to a ship would mean machines could attack the enemy in their own territory before safely returning to a mobile base.

The battlecruiser Furious was stripped of a gun turret and had a boxy hanger and landing platform installed in its place. A courageous squadron commander named Edwin Harris Dunning successfully landed his Sopwith Pup scout plane onboard in 1917, becoming the first person to land on a ship. Sadly, Dunning died in his third attempt when his machine skidded off into the water.

Although Dunning’s fate revealed the primitive nature of early aircraft carriers, the Navy felt confident in its new weapon and decided to attack the Zeppelins at home in 1918. In true Royal Navy tradition it was risky and daring. “The best and easiest place to catch a Zep was at her home base,” wrote Lt Col. Richard Bell Davies, in command of the operation. “We would have to use Camels. Their range was not large…but Tondern
[the German airship base] would be just within range from a point near the Danish coast.”

After 3 AM on July 19, seven Sopwith Camel scouts took off from Furious, flying low over the North Sea to conserve their fuel. Their attack came as a complete surprise. At Tondern, Zeppelin commander Captain Horst Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels was awoken by the roar of an engine passing just overhead. “…I jumped up and rushed to the window, from which I could get a
view of the whole aerodrome. Suddenly a shadow passed over our house, a
few yards above the roof, absurdly low….A British aeroplane!”

Sailors “standing with nothing on but their undergarments, or half naked,” fired back with rifles and machine guns, but “the Englishmen continued circling round without climbing an inch higher.” Their bombs smacked into the airship hanger, while Buttlar cycled towards to help put out the flames, only to watch in agony as the tons of hydrogen gas in his ships ignited. “Gruesomely beautiful it was, this giant flame of sacrifice in which our L54 and L60 perished… I stood facing the burnt-out wreck of my ship.”

At sea the sailors onboard Furious watched with equal trepidation to see whether any of the airmen would return. Only two did. Another flown by officer Dickson crashed into the ocean, where Dickson lost his lifebelt and almost drowned, until Furious arrived and “three able bodied seamen clutched hold of me and hauled me aboard like a sack of flour.” Three other Camels ditched in Denmark, where the pilots were interred for the rest of the war. The last fighter, flown by 19-year old Lt. Walter Yeulett, washed ashore three days later on a Danish beach, Yeulett drowned. Left to mull over the wreck of his base, Buttlar concluded that “The attack had been carried out extremely smartly, and had been an
entire success. Two airships had been completely
destroyed, and the airship base had been rendered harmless for some
considerable time.”

British Launch Carrier Attack on Zeppelin Base

The Sopwith Camels on the flight deck of the Furious while en route to the Danish coast.

July 19 1918, Tondern [Tønder]–The British had occasionally carried out air raids on German Zeppelin bases.  Many of them were too far east to be attacked by land-based planes, so any air attack would have to come from the sea.  On Christmas 1914, seaplanes had attacked Cuxhaven; the raid did little damage, but was an important morale boost for the British.  By 1918, the British had developed the first real aircraft carriers as we would recognize them today, on which wheeled planes could take off and land.

After a few failed attempts due to high wind, a force of seven Sopwith Camels took off from the HMS Furious off the Danish coast.  Six reached the target of the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern [Tønder], quickly destroying two Zeppelins, the L54 and L60. The Germans, taken by surprise, only managed to take a few pot-shots at the British fliers.  The British had expended a large amount of fuel during the raid, however, and three of the pilots decided to land in nearby Denmark rather than risk running out of fuel over the North Sea; they were interned for the remainder of the war.  Two of the other pilots made it back to the Furious, but ditched their planes rather than attempt a dangerous landing on the carrier itself; the sixth pilot did not return.

Today in 1917: The Breaking of the Russian Army

Today in 1916: First Australian Attack on the Western Front
Today in 1915: British Explode Largest Mine of the War at Hooge
Today in 1914: Austrian Ministerial Council Officially Approves Demarche To Serbia

Stay tuned for a bonus edition later today.

July 18, 1918 – Allies Counterattack on the We…

July 18, 1918 – Allies Counterattack on the Western Front

Pictured – The Allies fight side-by-side to push out the invaders out of France. This will be the decisive battle of the war.

For several days in July 1918 it looked like the Germans might break through Allied lines in their final offensive on the Western Front. By July 17, they had been halted everywhere, with help from Italian troops brought to France and especially from the Americans, whose 3rd Division became known as the “Rock of the Marne” for its valiant defense.

The tide had turned, and on July 18 it shifted decisively for the rest of the war. Coordinated by their Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch, the Allies launched their counter-offensive. In the morning a barrage from 2,000 gun artillery guns over a 27-mile front blasted the German lines, which had been categorically mapped out by recce planes and spies. As drumfire rained down on the enemy, 24 French divisions from the Sixth and Tenth Armies of Generals Degoutte and Mangin went over the top, alongside three American divisions. Italian and British troops joined in the fray over the next days, and contributed their artillery to the bombardment. 350 of the new French light tanks joined in the assault.

The unfortunate German Seventh Army recoiled under the weight of Allied men and materiel. Foch’s aim was to eliminate the bulge the Germans had made towards Paris; in this he was immediately successful. Taken by surprise, the Germans fell back hurriedly. They would never regain the strategic initiative again.

Allies Go On the Offensive

Infantry from the US 1st Division, shortly before the battle.

July 18 1918, Soissons–For some time, Generalissimo Foch had been preparing an attack on the right flank of the German salient stretching south from the Aisne.  When the Germans launched their latest offensive on July 15, Pétain tried to cancel the effort and move troops south to meet the German attack, but Foch countermanded the order; the attack would go forward as planned on July 18.  Preparations continued at night, and the Germans, who were preoccupied elsewhere, did not suspect a thing.  They were taken entirely by surprise when the French and Americans attacked behind a massive creeping barrage at 4:35 AM.  Private Francis, in the US 2nd Division, recalled:

I will never forget the sight when our artillery opened up. It was worse than any electrical storm I have ever seen.  The whole sky seemed to open up for it became as light as day.  This put new life into us and we went over as if we had just hopped off the trucks.  It was impossible to hear any one talk, and the artillery kept a continual roar day and night.  It seemed like thunder and it didn’t even let up for five minutes.

The infantry was also supported by 500 tanks, mainly quick-moving light French Renault models, although many of them were knocked out during the day.

Along a 27-mile front, stretching from Soissons south to the Marne, the French and Americans would advance up to five miles–in the words of one officer in the 2nd Division, it was “nothing but a hike.” French cavalry was present to exploit the breakthrough, but they could never quite be assembled in time and in the right place to make a difference.  Even in the open country beyond the Germans’ lines, a few well-placed machine gunners could quickly stop the advance.

The Allied attack greatly concerned Ludendorff, who had been planning Operation Hagen in Flanders with Crown Prince Rupprecht.  He sent what reserves he could to the area, and countermanded the movement of troops and artillery north to Flanders.  Apart from that, however, with German reserves running low, he “could only await further developments.”  General Lossberg, Chief of Staff of the Fourth Army in Flanders, would write that:

July 18, 1918 was the precise turning point in the conduct of the war.  The OHL’s failure to understand that the combat strength of the German army was already severely shattered…finally drove us to the position in which we found ourselves at war’s end.

Today in 1917: Finland Unilaterally Declares Autonomy from Russia

Today in 1916: UK Ratifies Treaty with Saudis
Today in 1915:  Second Battle of the Isonzo Begins As Italians Assault Karst Plateau
Today in 1914: Austrian Ambassador Szapary Tries To Reassure Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Gary Mead, The Doughboys; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

German pilot officer Hermann Goering, who took…

German pilot officer Hermann Goering, who took over the Red Baron’s fighter wing.

A raiding party of Royal Scots charges their m…

A raiding party of Royal Scots charges their magazines before a raid. The officer in the center, Lieutenant Charles Kavanagh, was killed in the action. July 1918.