Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Kings of the Air: 'War, German style' 3

The third of three posts on Paris under attack during the Great War.

'Berthas by day, Gothas by night,' proclaimed l'Illustration, 'the dull rumble of the guns at the front, the uhlans just "five marches" from the boulevards … things should be pretty grim in Paris right now! [But no.] Everyday life continues, no airs, no graces and no faint hearts. This is our Paris in wartime: no fuss, no panic, no bravado. A model of steadiness and self-control.'

Under the bombardment in Paris was the American Mildred Aldrich: 'We were hardly on the balcony, when, in an instant, all the lights of the city went out, and a strange blackness settled down and hugged the housetops and the very sidewalk. At the same instant the guns of the outer barrage began to fire, and as the night was cold, we went inside to listen, and to talk. I wonder if I can tell you – who are never likely to have such an experience – how it feels to sit inside four walls, in absolute darkness, listening to the booming of the defence, and the falling of bombs on an otherwise silent city, wakened out of its sleep. It is a sensation to which I doubt if any of us get really accustomed – this sitting quietly while the cannon boom, and now and then an avion whirs overhead, or a venturesome auto toots its horn as it dashes to a shelter, or the occasional voice of a gendarme yells angrily at some unextinguished light, or a hurried footstep on the pavement tells of a passer in the deserted street, braving all risks to reach home. I assure you that the hands on the clock-face simply crawl. An hour is very long. This raid of the 17th lasted only three-quarters of an hour. It was barely half-past eleven when the berloque sounded from the hurrying firemen's auto – the B-flat bugle singing the "all clear" – and, in an instant, the city was alive again – noisily alive. Even before the berloque was really audible in the room where we sat, I heard the people hurrying back from the abris – doors opened and banged, windows and shutters were flung wide, and the rush of air in the gas pipes told that the city lights were on again.'

'Every one hates it,' she continued. 'But every one knows that the chances are about one in some thousands – and takes the chance. I know of late sitters-up, who cannot change their habits, and who keep right on playing bridge during a raid. How good a game it is, I don't know. Well, one kind of bravado is as good as another. Among many people the chief sensation is one of boredom – it is a nuisance to be wakened out of one's first sleep; it is a worse nuisance to have proper saut de lit clothes ready; and it is the worst nuisance of all to go down into a damp cellar and possibly have to listen to talk.' This short film shows the entrances to some of the shelters, and how some shopkeepers, in taping up their windows to reduce the dangers of shattered glass, tried to create 'artistic' arrangements. This film shows some of the measures to sandbag historic monuments.

'No use complaining!' cautioned La France illustrée. 'It's war. War, German style! Our enemies have handed us another lesson. Our will to win may equal theirs, but do we match them in our determination to develop weapons of war, achieve the technical superiority required to counter the threat of their evil genius, find new applications for science or make the most infinitessimal of new discoveries?'

Before the outbreak of war, Clément Ader had prophesied great (Anglo-German!) air fleets that would lay waste to the centre of Paris, and excitable politicans and excitable newspapers had been fascinated with the notion ever since. It came as no surprise that many from within that constituency wanted to do nothing more than lay Germany waste from the air.

'It is sad to think,' mourned deputy Alain d'Aubigny (file under: Excitable Politician), 'that what our air force could not do was provide the weapon of reprisal that every Frenchman wanted to see used against our enemies; and what heartbreak for after the war. Britain, the United States, [and] our enemies, understand the role the heavy bomber has in enforcing peace.'

A journalist asked Giovanni Caproni, the Italian bomber manufacturer, 'Do you believe in long-range bombing? Would you see Paris, Lyon, Le Creusot [and] Saint-Chamond bombarded?' 'Oh yes,' came the reply, 'with an unforseen regularity.'

Georges Kirsch (V29) was a reluctant supporter: 'There was no question of us trying to inflict physical damage on military targets,' he wrote of a raid on Saarbrücken. 'Our task was to sneak up on the major arteries and drop the lot at zero hour, midday German time, as people were leaving the factories. Four hundred and twenty dead. We thought it despicable, but that's war.' 
The position of these bombing enthusiasts included a number of contradictions, which they did nothing to address. One of the main underlying assumptions was that German moral, particularly that of German workers, was nowhere near as good and steady as that of French workers, and so would immediately collapse. So, our civilians can take it, simply because they are ours; theirs cannot, because they are them. Obviously.

In his post-war book L'Aéronautique hier, demain (Paris, Masson, 1920) Major Jean Orthlieb, who had been an army aviation commander during the war, noted with some satisfaction the poor results of the German raids on Paris, particularly when compared to the decisive interventions by French tactical bombers on the battlefield. Yet he concluded, 'what we really lacked during the war, and something that would have played a decisive role, was a longe-range aircraft, with a powerful bomb load.' The Aircraft of the Future was to be a 'night battleship' (cuirassé nocturne) carrying several tons of explosives. So when they do it, it's rubbish; but when we do it, it's a war winner.

After Major Louis Robert de Beauchamp made a solo raid on Munich in 1916, Captain Henri de Kérillis, who led C66 on their reprisal raid on Karlsruhe later that year, wondered, 'what would have happened if fifty had gone with him ... You can see that fifty Sopwiths dropping 500 bombs onto the streets of the city would have given pause to the torpedoers of the Lusitania and the incendiarists of Reims.' But when zeppelins started regular raids against London, de Kérillis condemned it as terrorism. So when we do it, it's a justified reprisal; when you do it, it's terrorism.

Yet if the object of the German air-raids and the bombardment was destroy French civilian morale, it did not work. Journalist Marie Harrison reported on Paris under bombardment: 'I was in Paris during the first days of the bombardment, and I know something about the morale of the city under circumstances of acute unpleasantness. Air raids are horrible enough but they have their time limit. There is no "all clear" in an attack by the mystery gun. I remember that on Good Friday it began early in the morning, and the explosions continued throughout the day, occurring precisely at every quarter of an hour. That is a form of irritation which the Huns thought would empty Paris in a week. Some people left the city as some people have left London to escape the raid. But the greater number of Parisians went quietly about their work and did not even leave the business at hand to seek shelter from the approach of the next expected attack. Paris is so close to the war and has lived for so long beneath its shadow that it would take more than a long range-gun to disturb the normal course of its way of living.' And in this short film, shot outside the Printemps department store, it does look like business as usual.

Pictures: Mildred Aldrich; a contemporary novel - they seem to be enduring Aldrich's 'worst nuisance of all', and are certainly not singing this naughty little ditty of the time, by the music-hall star Dranem; a map showing all the bombs and shells that fell on Paris; Alain d'Aubigny (from Wikipedia); de Kérillis in the 1930s (also from Wikipedia). There is a short newsreel film showing some of the destruction in Paris here, and some photos of the damage are here.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Kings of the Air: Into the sunset (almost)

If you've been reading these posts and thinking, 'He's taking an inordinate amount of time to finish this so-called book', well, you'll be glad to know that the time for last-minute alterations is over, the final debate about commas versus semi-colons has been resolved without bloodshed (just), so for everyone who has said -

- worry no more, the manuscript has finally (finally!) gone off to the publishers, Pen and Sword.

So I can only say, Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy! (yes, it's a Christmas carol - work with me here)

Only the proof-reading and indexing to come ...

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Kings of the Air: 'War, German style' 2

Welcome to my 100th post!

At 7.15 am, 23 March 1918, there was an explosion in the Place de la République; a second, fifteen minutes later in the Rue Charles V; and a third, in the Boulevard de Strasbourg. No warning had been given by the listening posts to the north of Paris, and civilians and airmen alike scanned the skies in vain for German bombers. Only by reassembling the fragments did the French work out that they were dealing with artillery and not aircraft. Over the next twenty-four hours, a total of twenty-one shells landed in the city itself, and one in Châtillon. Yet such a solution seemed incredible. René Fonck (SPA103) was at the front that day. 'We received a telephone message during the afternoon telling us they were shelling Paris,' he recalled. 'The news seemed so implausible that everyone burst out laughing. I preferred to keep my own counsel. How could a gun sited more than 120 kilometres away drop a shell close to the Gare de l'Est? Everyone thought the idea quite frankly ridiculous. But then how could aircraft possibly conduct a daylight raid, pass unseen through a swarm of SPADs all positioned to stop them, and drop bombs all morning? The gun hypothesis offered the only possible explanation. Only the range remained a mystery.'

What the French referred to as 'Big Bertha' was actually two weapons, both 210mm railway-mounted cannons, based near Crépy-en-Laonnois, 121 kilometres from the capital. Sound location gave the French the approximate position of the guns, quickly confirmed by the aircraft of SPA62, commanded by François Coli. Although a nominally single-seater squadron, it had a number of two-seater SPAD 11 on strength, and these were sent on reconnaissance. 'Then we were over the Boches,' recalled Lieutenant Jean de Brettes. 'Nobody had fired at us yet. Not a good sign, it must mean there were enemy patrols around. North-east of the Saint-Gobain forest, the Germans suddenly opened up with anti-aircraft fire. The shells were all bursting at exactly my height and I had to dodge
to avoid them. My observer began taking photographs. Now we were over Crépy, the batteries still going hammer and tongs. The SPADs never left me for an instant. At one point they dived across me towards six German fighters. The [Boches] shot down one of our chaps, then headed towards Marie. Someone came spinning down. A Boche or a Frenchman? I got my answer five minutes later [when] just three SPADs followed me across our lines. I hoped our comrade had only been wounded. The mission was over: I was first to land, and as each aircraft followed we all ran over in search of news. Once we were all down, we found out the missing pilot was Lieutenant Lecoq. We later discovered he'd been the one shot down by the six Boches over our lines. He'd taken a number of hits to the body. Although our photos weren't great, they did show the exact location of the “Berthas”, so we could start correcting the fire of the guns detailed to destroy the enemy “colossi”.  
During the flight, my colleague Adjudant [Charles] Quette spotted a flash that proved to be the firing of one of the Crépy guns. A few days later, new photographs were deemed necessary to supplement the information we'd gathered during our first trip and to confirm the effects of our fire. I was picked again, with Lieutenant [Paul] Brousse as my observer. A second crew accompanied us: Adjudant Fabien Lambert (pilot) and Lieutenant [Robert] des Allées (observer). Despite adverse weather conditions, sustained and accurate anti-aircraft fire and the continual presence of enemy fighters, we got [our] new photographs.'

French counter-battery work began immediately, using the guns of 78th Heavy Artillery Regiment and the spotters of BR213, but to little avail. The site lay hidden deep within woodland and was protected by a smokescreen as well as anti-aircraft guns. According to the authorities, 367 shells landed on Paris between 23 March and 9 August 1918, the most lethal attack taking place on 29 March, when the ancient church of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais in the fourth arrondissement took a direct hit during the Good Friday service: ninety-one worshippers died and sixty-eight more were wounded. French artillery and bombers were all unable to halt the shelling, and only the allied advance during the second Battle of the Marne in July prompted the Germans to withdraw the massive guns out of range.

In terms of actual damage caused, the effect of the guns was negligible - the shells were too small for that. The real target of the guns was always intended to be French civilian morale - demonstrating that Paris was not safe even though the Germans were 75km away.

There is a bit of a mash-up of a video on YouTube here.

Pictures: one of the guns firing during its trials; one of the reconnaissance photos of Crépy-en-Laonnois, with the gun sites ringed (Albin Denis); a SPAD 11; the damage done to the church of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais (Gallica); the crews of BR213, tasked with spotting for the French batteries (from La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée)

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Kings of the Air: 'War, German style' 1

The first German air raid on Paris was at 12.45pm on 30 August 1914, when a Taube overflew the city at a height of 1,000 metres and dropped five bombs, killing one civilian and wounding four others, before flying off untouched by the guns of the Camp Retranché de Paris (CRP). Four armed Farmans operating as HF28 were immediately allocated to the CRP, but they too proved ineffective and the raids continued over the next three months, killing eleven and wounding fifty. On 2 September one Farman managed to get within range, but its machine gun jammed on the tenth round and the intruder escaped unscathed.

Better defences were required. Lack of available chassis made the mobile motorized AA units favoured by General Gallieni (the commander of the Paris garrison) unviable; instead an outer ring of listening posts was set up about a hundred kilometres from the city, with an inner ring of fifteen fixed batteries – each deploying two 75mm field guns, four machine guns and some searchlights – placed on the most likely routes into the capital. As soon as the alert was sounded, a complete blackout would be imposed across the city. 

A second ring of listening posts was soon added in a semicircle some twenty kilometres from the centre, but these dispositions remained untested until 21 March 1915, when two Zeppelins bombed the city without causing much damage. The early warning system worked reasonably well, but the artillery less so. The guns struggled to find the correct range and displayed the oft-lamented tendency to fire indiscriminately – perhaps discouraging the twenty-eight aircraft of the CRP from attempting an interception. A further seventeen planes were immediately added to the strength, but during a raid on 28 May 1915 not one took to the air. A series of standing patrols was then introduced, but it proved hard to communicate details of the enemy bearing: with no ground to air wireless, details could only be transmitted by laying cloth panels on the ground.
The next couple of years saw desultory Zeppelin raids - nothing like those on the UK. But in 1918, the German stepped up its effort, now
using heavy bombers. Between January and September, the Germans flew 483 sorties over Paris. The first was on the night of 30-31 January, when about thirty aircraft, flying in small groups, set off. Only eleven reached the target, where they dropped seventy-one bombs from between 1,000 and 4,000 metres. Fifty-seven French aircraft were scrambled to meet them, but only six actually got close enough to fire their guns - and they all missed. Even more weapons (including a number of 105mm guns), new sound locators and extra searchlights were added to the capital's air defences since 1914, while false lights and decoy cities were planned in an attempt to fool the raiders: around Conflans downriver to the west and at Villepinte to the north. 

In February, a new AA organisation placed all the country's anti-aircraft units (64th Artillery Regiment in Paris, 65th Artillery everywhere else) under a single command under General Louis Renaud, with headquarters at 37 Avenue Rapp. To minimise confusion, and to prevent friendly fire incidents, Renaud ordered the CRP aircraft to stay on the ground, so that anything in the air was by definition German, and so fair game for the guns. An AA School was created at Ecouen (Val d'Oise), with target shooting at Lion-sur-mer (Calvados).

From a total of 485 sorties between January and November 1918, only 35 bombed the target, delivering about 12 tonnes of bombs. The French claimed that this was due to the intensity of the defensive barrage (125,000 rounds - mostly 75mm - were fired); many enemy aircraft elected to drop their bombs instead on the heavily industrialized northern suburbs like La Villette. The French hailed this as a moral victory, since the centre of the city escaped relatively unscathed, but the many factories in the area suffered significant damage, as did the important railway junction at Creil. There was certainly more value for the Germans in bombing Creil than the Place de la Concorde, so perhaps they had always intended to bomb there.
Attacks from German aircraft killed 266 and wounded 603 in the city and its suburbs. Eleven enemy aircraft were shot down, all by ground fire, and all on the northern approaches to the city, in the Marne valley.

Pictures: a modern replica Taube (the name meanins 'dove'), showing its distinctive bird-like silhouette; the searchlights on the top of the Navy Ministry in the Place de la Concorde (if this was a blackout night, then the defences had a major fail on their hands); anti-aircraft gun mounts were often improvised, as with these 75s; the slow, under-powered Farman HF.20 that formed the mainstay of the Paris defences; a Gotha GV; the situation room at AA HQ (from L'Illustration); a map of the Paris defences, listening posts in white, gun sites in black (from Coastal Artillery Journal); the results of a raid, 5 Rue Geoffroy-Marie, in the 9th Arrondissement - the house had to be rebuilt in 1923 (from Gallica).

Part 2, on the Paris gun, next time; part 3 on civilians, after that.