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.

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