Diary of the War: December 1917

Shot Down off the Coast

By December 1917 the citizens of London were used to air raids at regular intervals: it was terrifying enough, although nothing like on the scale of the Blitz of the Second World War. The wreck highlighted today in this month’s War Diary is representative of a new form of accident out to sea which would become more prevalent as aerial warfare developed.

On 18 December 1917 another raid was carried out by around 16 to 20 aircraft of Bogohl 3. (Bombengeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung, High Command Bomber Squadron, also known as the Englandgeschwader, or ‘England Squadron’.) Two groups of Gotha bombers flew in over Kent and Essex around 6.30pm with the aim of bombing London. Some of the bombers got through and inflicted damage on Lincoln’s Inn which can still be seen today.

Nevertheless, after the cumulative experience of several raids, there were now several lines of defence which prevented all the raiders reaching London. Firstly, anti-aircraft guns swung into action and turned at least some of the enemy away. Secondly, barrage balloons were moored to protect London, a response more usually associated with the Second World War. One contemporary headline, ‘Barraged Gothas’ implies that the balloons were a major factor in preventing the majority of the Gothas from reaching London. (1)

Blue sky dominates the upper two-thirds of this painting, with small barrage balloons dotted high up in the sky. Below them are plumes of smoke from the factories hidden in the background. In the foreground a flat green agricultural landscape with trees.
The Balloon Apron, Frank Dobson, 1918. Barrage balloons float high over the flat Essex landscape. Stretching high into the sky are smoke plumes from factories, including Kynoch’s munitions factory. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2001)

At this point I made an unexpected discovery and this is where I digress briefly. I’d already earmarked Frank Dobson’s image as an illustration to this post, having seen it in an exhibition earlier this year, and saw then the balloons protected Kynoch’s munitions factory. (2) Researching this article, I then discovered that this same factory at Corringham, Essex, was targeted early on in this specific raid. (3) Nor was this the only coincidence. One of the supervisors at that very factory was my grandmother – and I wonder now if she was there at the time or had already gone home for the day! (Here’s a photograph of female workers at Kynoch’s: my grandmother is the girl in the sailor suit.)

The third line of defence was aerial combat. Fighter pilots from the Home Defence Squadrons also took to the air to challenge and intercept the raiders, among them Captain Gilbert Ware Murlis Green of No.44 Squadron, Hainault Farm, Essex, in his Sopwith Camel. (4) Up he went in his single-seater to duel with the three-man Gotha bomber, crewed by Oberleutnant G von Stachelsky (pilot), Leutnant Friedrich Ketelsen, and Gefreiter A Weissman. Three times he went in to attack, and then, blinded by his own muzzle flash, he was forced to pull away, while the searchlights that made the Gotha visible to him also made him a target for its return fire. His fourth attack found its mark.

Green had not immediately downed his opponent, but damaged it enough for it to be doubtful if it could return across the Channel. The press took up the tale: ‘One raider was hit by gunfire and finally came down in the sea off the Kentish coast, two of its crew of three men being captured alive by an armed trawler.’ (5) 

As the aircraft crossed the coast, observers noticed it sounded as if it was flying low, and therefore clearly struggling, and then the sound of its engines was heard to cease suddenly out at sea. The “All Clear” was then sounded, followed by an offshore explosion shortly afterwards. Searches found the stricken aircraft and the trawler picked up von Stachelsky and Weissman, but Ketelsen had perished in the incident.

Ketelsen was a Danish-minority German from Pellworm in Schleswig-Holstein. A very interesting website, mostly in Danish, commemorates the Danish minority reluctantly mobilised into the German forces, with a page dedicated to Ketelsen. His name appears on a hand-painted memorial tablet which is very moving to see (if you follow the line across from the lower left-hand column to the right it leads easily to his name).

As for the rescued men, much was made of their youth and demeanour: one of the prisoners was described as ‘very sullen and dejected’, as well he might have been. (6)

It would have been absolutely freezing exposed at several thousand feet high on a cold December night, and the sea would have been no better. The two rescued crew were very fortunate to live to see another Christmas, even if it wasn’t exactly how they planned to spend it!

Black and white photograph of soliders standing around a crashed aircraft with a prominent black cross on its tailfin.
Last month’s post has a connection with this month’s, as Portuguese and British troops inspect the wreckage of a German Gotha G.IV heavy bomber (similar to the one brought down off Folkestone) downed in the Portuguese sector, France. © IWM (Q 64432)

 

(1) Sheffield Daily Telegraph, No.19,485, Thursday 20 December 1917, p5

(2) Imperial War Museum, catalogue entry for The Balloon Apron, suggests that it depicts balloons over Kynoch’s factory at Canvey Island. However, Kynoch’s presence on the island was in the form of a hotel and powder hulks located just offshore, but no factory. Kynoch’s factory was at Corringham, Essex, and, given the multiple factories depicted in the background of the painting, it appears more likely that the image shows the industrial landscape around Corringham. See also: Penn, J. nd. The Canvey Explosives Scheme of 1875: Dynamite Hulks and the Canvey Hotel

(3) Castle, I. nd Zeppelin Raids, Gothas and Giants: entry for 18 December 1917

(4) Castle, I. 2010 London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz Oxford: Osprey Publishing; The Aerodrome forum. nd Gilbert Ware Murlis Green

(5) Chelmsford Chronicle, No.7,997, Friday 21 December 1917, p4

(6) Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, No.12,382, Thursday 20 December 1917, p2

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