Gotha raid of 22nd August 1917 – Part of the first “Battle of Britain”

Flt Lt Arthur Frank Brandon with Sopwith Camel B3923 ‘Springbok’. Photo from Joe Bamford.

During the First World War, the earlier raids by Zeppelin airships had brought the war to the civilian population on home soil. However, their impact was slight compared to the public anger at the Gotha bomber raids in 1917. The first of the raids was on 25th May 1917 and they would continue until 22nd August 1917.

On the morning of Wednesday 22nd August 1917, fifteen Gotha bombers of Kagohl 3 set out from their Belgian base led by Hauptmann (Captain) Rudolf Kleine. The plan was for a two-pronged attack; one to attack Sheerness then either Southend or Chatham; the other group to attack Dover. Mechanical problems forced four of the bombers to turn back while over the English Channel, then with the English Coast in sight, Kleine’s aircraft developed engine trouble as well and also had to turn back.

Gotha G.IV of Kagohl 3 at St Denis just before the first England raid on 25th May 1917. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The V formation of enemy aircraft were heading towards North Foreland, but were reported at 1004 from the Kentish Knock Light Vessel, giving plenty of advanced warning. Observers at the North Foreland Look Out Station heard the roar from the incoming engines and were observed flying ENE directly for the Foreland.

The alarm was raised both with airborne and land based units. Two miles out, anti-aircraft fire was put up by the land batteries and forced the enemy formation to break and turn North towards Margate where they arrived at 1026.

The Sopwith Camel ‘Wonga Bonga’ in which Flt Lt Brandon shot down the Gotha that crashed at Vincent Farm.

Flt Lt Arthur Frank Brandon of the Manston War Flight at RNAS Manston War School, in Sopwith Camel F.1 B3834 “Wonga Bonga” had already taken off at 0930 on a local patrol. He went up to 15,000 feet, but because he found it very cold, he decided to come back down. It was then that he saw a ground signal for “readiness”, knowing that aircraft were going to be scrambled. He climbed back to 15,000 feet and saw the rest of the flight climbing towards him. Wing Commander Robert Peel Ross had ordered the Manston War Flight of Drake, Fitzherbert, Harker and the Commanding Officer, Sqn Cdr C H Butler, into the air in their Sopwith Camels. Elsewhere, three aircraft from Eastchurch, six from Walmer and two from Dover were ordered up in response to the attack.

Brandon decided to get between the enemy and the sun, and already had the advantage of height, being 2,000 feet above them. He targeted one of the twin-engined aircraft, Gotha G.IV 663/16 and dived towards it. He resisted the urge to fire until he was 200 feet away. He fired about 18 rounds before he saw the rear gunner slump. He circled and attacked a total of three times whilst the enemy aircraft directed fire towards him, firing over 600 rounds towards the Gotha. His gunfire struck the Gotha’s starboard engine, which burst into flames, then the Gotha broke into pieces as it plunged to earth. Some wreckage fell at the Hengrove Golf Course, at the time just off Shottendane Road, close to the AA battery there, and the rest in a field by Vincent Farm close to Manston. It was the first enemy aircraft to crash on English soil. All three of the German airmen, 22 year old pilot Unteroffizier Heinrich Schildt, observer Oberleutnant Eckhardt Fulda and gunner Vizfeldwebel Ernst Eikelkamp were killed instantly.

Gotha G.IV 405/16. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The bodies were moved to the barn and after some civilians entered the barn and kicked the airmen, an armed guard was mounted. The crew were buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Margate a few days later with full military honours, attended by Wing Commander Ross. The service was carried out in the early light at 6am to prevent any demonstrations or problems from the civilian population, roused by the recent attacks on them. Their bodies were later moved to Cannock Chase War Cemetery.

Sopwith Camel B3923 ‘Springbok’

Even though luck seemed to have favoured Brandon given the amount of enemy gunfire towards him, his aircraft had been hit in its No.6 cylinder. He was forced to land, but reportedly after claiming his victory, he took off in another Camel, B3923 “Springbok” and set back off in pursuit of the formation over the North Sea until he ran out of ammunition. He fired around 300 rounds towards one aircraft that had split from the formation. “Springbok” had only been delivered to Manston ten days earlier. When he landed a neat bullet hole was found in one of his propeller blades. The aircraft must also have had further damage as three days later, it was considered bad enough to order it to be scrapped.

The coastal anti-aircraft guns fired at the Gothas throughout the raid.

Dover

Flight Commander Gerald Essex Hervey had taken off from Dover at 1020 (0920 GMT) and arrived at North Foreland at 11,000 feet. He saw the Gothas coming inland. He climbed and engaged one, Gotha G/IV/663/16, on the right of the formation about 3 miles out to sea. He fired 100 rounds from straight behind his tail at 100 yards away. The aircraft started into a slow spin as his gun jammed which took several seconds to clear. He then followed the Gotha down and fired another 25 rounds into it. His gun jammed again, but while trying to clear it he got into a fast spin which he managed to get out of it to see the enemy aircraft crash in the sea, half a mile off Margate.

The Gotha’s pilot, 28 year old Lt D R Werner Joschkowitz and observer, 24 year old Lt Walter Latowsky were killed, but the 19 year old gunner Unteroffizier Bruno Schneider somehow survived and was taken as Prisoner of War after being picked up by HMS Kestrel. The wreckage was recovered, but apparently the bodies were not found.

Footage of Gotha GIV/663/16 shot down off Margate on 22nd August 1917 by Gerald Hervey. Watch from 0:02:12. Alternatively you can watch on the IWM site here: http://film.iwmcollections.org.uk/record/index/5422

Hervey landed at Manston to have his gun jam cleared and went back up after the remaining eight Gothas. He caught up with them just off Dover at 14,000 feet and initially engaged several of them in turn. He then concentrated on one and after firing over 200 rounds at it, the rear guns fell silent, presumably injuring or killing the gunners. He ran out of ammunition so left the aircraft being pursued by others. He was of the opinion that the aircraft must have been armoured and the pilot must have been protected, given the amount of bullets he fired at them.

Sopwith Scout (Pup) N.6438 of Flight Commander MacLaren also left from Dover, although usually based at Walmer. It had been under repair there and was being fetched at the time. After leaving at 1015, MacLaren found his gun would not fire, so he landed at Walmer to have it repaired. He then left at 1105 and pursued the remaining seven aircraft ten miles out to sea but was unable to catch them. He returned after patrolling int he direction of the Kentish Knock Light Vessel.

Walmer

At Walmer the “Readiness” signal was received at 1020 and Sopwith N6440 of Flt Lt Kerby and Sopwith Scout N.6439 of Flt Sub Lt Kingsford took off at 1024. Kerby climbed to around 11,000 feet approaching Broadstairs. He was in the company of five Camels. The Gothas turned towards Stoner under heavy and accurate AA fire. Left behind by the Camels who outdistanced and outclimbed him, he observed two Camels attacking one of the leading Gothas which burst into flames. He and another Camel, presumably that of Flight Commander Hervey, were then in a good attacking position on the right-hand Gotha. He observed his tracer bullets going into the fuselage of the Gotha which almost immediately went into a steep spinning nose-dive. He followed it down with an occasional gun burst until it fell into the sea off Margate. It would appear that this was the same aircraft claimed by Hervey, although it would seem that Hervey was attempting to recover from his spin, so Kerby might have attacked in the meantime. With his engine oiled-up, he had to land on the beach at Margate. Kingsford was unable to climb as fast and did not engage the enemy aircraft.

Flt Lt Little also left from Walmer in Sopwith Scout N.9947 at 1035 and engaged enemy aircraft over Dover. Having trouble with his gun, he could only fire single shots. He pursued the enemy aircraft across the Channel and landed at Aircraft Depot, Dunkirk. He claimed that off Ostend he last saw the Gothas being attacked by five De Havilland 4s.

Having seen Brandon’s attack on the first Gotha, Sqn Cdr Butler led Drake, Fitzherbert and Harker inland to engage the Gothas. He attacked three at different times during the chase; Harker one at Dover; Fitzherbert attacked another at Ramsgate then a formation of three until they were well out to see and his ammunition exhausted. Flt Sub-Lt E B Drake in Camel B3844 made his first attack from 15,500 feet near Canterbury and concentrated a series of attacks on one target. Near to Dover, at 1120, the Gotha G.IV caught fire and fell.

Disputes

Questions remain if the Gotha that Brandon claimed was shot down by him, or it was hit by ground fire. Sqn Cdr Butler saw Brandon’s guns firing and the rounds striking the Gotha which caught on fire, but his account is not universally accepted. Similarly, the Gotha that crashed into the sea off Margate is argued could have been taken down by the AA gunners instead of the aircraft from Dover. Some argue that Brandon had a share in the Gotha that crashed at sea and not the one at Vincent Farm. Seemingly it wasn’t just the airborne fighting that was in its infancy, but also the recognition and reporting. Indeed, it must have been harrowing enough for the British pilots to be fighting against the enemy aircraft, but worse given the reportedly constant barrage by ground guns.

A hero, lost

On 26th October 2017, Flt Lt Arthur Frank Brandon DSC RNAS in Sopwith Triplane N.5382 “Ooslumbird” collided with a Sopwith Pup N.6466 flown by Lt D.W. Gray. Flt Lt Brandon was killed and is buried in Minster Cemetery.

Grave of Flt Lt Arthur Frank Brandon DSC RNAS at Minster Cemetery

Arthur Frank Brandon was from Ladysmith, Natal, South Africa and fought against the Germans in South-West Africa before joining the RNAS. After service in Salonica, Brandon was invalided back to the UK in July 1917 but was flying again by the morning of 22 August 1917.

Awards

On 17th November 1917 it was announced that Brandon had posthumously been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his action on the 22nd August. Butler, Drake, Fitzherbert and Harker were “Mentioned in Dispatches”.

On 18th October, notification was received that Flight Commander Hervey was to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, approved by the King.

The Legacy

The raid on 22nd August was the last daylight attack on England. The aircraft that made it back to Belgium bore many battle scars, including dead and wounded on board. The Gotha’s invulnerability had been proven wrong and the price of the raids was becoming too high.

For the British, the 13 week campaign was also costly, with nearly 20 tons of bombs being dropped on civilian targets, 401 dead and 983 injured. The resultant reports into the defences against what is often referred to as the first “Battle of Britain”, recommended the creation of an Air Ministry and a unified Air Service, which ultimately led to the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918.

Sopwith Camel F.1 B3834 “Wonga Bonga”

“Wonga Bonga” was a 130hp Clerget 9B powered Sopwith F.1 Camel from a production order for 200 aircraft placed with The Sopwith Aviation Company Ltd in June 1917 (numbers B3751 to B3950). It was delivered to RNAS Manston War Flight on 10 July 1917 in response to the growing air raid panic caused by Gotha bombers and flew several Anti Gotha Patrols over the next two months piloted by RH Day and AF Brandon. The words “Wonga Bonga” (Wonga = Gotha, because of their distinctive engine sound, and Bonga = smasher). After 8 months of service, B3834 was scrapped in February 1918.

Footnote

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