Joining the Royal Naval Air Force during the crucial battle of early spring had been an emergency duty. Thereafter such service as the American pilots performed while attached to British or French squadrons was for the purpose of training them, by practical experience, to operate with the Northern Bombing Group. This also was the object of sending them to the Army school at Clermont-Ferrand. The Dunkirk station, with Lieutenant Gates in command, continued to carry on its activities but was no longer an isolated unit. It became a part of the general scheme of the Northern Bombing Group which was placed under the direction of Captain David Hanrahan, U. S. N. The threads of the narrative must therefore be twisted together to include the inception and organization of this large enterprise which, delayed by difficulties unforeseen, would have been successful had the war lasted longer.
When previously mentioned in these recent chapters, Lieutenant Robert Lovett was at Felixstowe with his notebooks and a great many ideas sizzling under his cap. Observation — reflection — deduction — and there you were! John Vorys may have been a bit jealous of an intelligence which functioned so competently when he spoke in such a flippant manner of his comrade as 'mooning over a picture of Adèle, receiving and sending big confidential letters from and to Captain "Hutch‑Eye!" Cone and Admiral Sims and the aforementioned lady and then off again to pastures new.'
The truth is that Lieutenant Lovett was insatiable in pursuing information to its lair and a master hand at making p169 use of it. His reports to the Navy Department from Felixstowe would make a technical monograph. They covered the whole theory and practice of manning and operating flying-boat stations and the systems of patrol. Much of this material was found valuable by the Department in preparing its instructional data and in formulating its plans for expansion overseas. It was very unusual for the opinions and recommendations of a boyish Reserve officer to be weighed with so much respect by those far above him in rank and naval experience. His Felixstowe reports evoked letters of commendation from Captain Cone and the Department itself.
His original purpose in visiting Felixstowe had been to learn all he could before taking command of one of the American stations in France. While working at the problems of maintaining so large and costly a plant, and the results obtained, he dug out certain figures that, when put together, interested and surprised him. It was reported that Germany had built, up to that time, three hundred and fifty submarines of which only fifty, as a maximum number, were cruising in British or European waters during any one month. Only fifteen per cent of the fleet was effective. Eighty-five per cent was in German docks and harbors for repairs, outfitting, and rest. In April, 1917, Admiral Sims had reported to the Navy Department, 'It is estimated that between thirty and forty submarines operate at a time in the waters surrounding the British Isles and on the French coast.'
From the records kept by Commander Porte at Felixstowe it was that during a period of three years the average seaplane on patrol over the North Sea had been compelled to cover an approximate total of •twenty‑two thousand square miles before sighting an enemy submarine. This seemed rather startling. Furthermore, after sighting the submarine, the chances were about even, or p170 'fifty-fifty' of getting within bombing range. And the odds were then one to four against hitting the objective. Compared with all this, the needle in the haystack was absurdly easy.
The Spider Web Patrol was effective, in a way, but its operations covered a limited area and were more or less guess-work unless the course of a submarine had been 'fixed' by radio bearings. The main point was that Germany could turn out submarines much faster than the Allied naval forces could destroy them. It was obvious that they were much more vulnerable when assembled at their own bases, instead of dispersed over many thousand square miles of ocean. Because of the distance across the North Sea, it was impracticable to devise a sustained air attack upon the German submarine harbors of Bremen and Wilhelmshafen.
The bases of Ostend and Zeebrugge (with the canal to Bruges) on the Belgian coast were accessible and close at hand. And they sheltered the most numerous active flotillas of sea‑going submarines that Germany kept in commission. If these nests could be wiped out, the menacing problem would be largely solved. This was recognized by the British Navy. Hard pressed in other quarters, however, it lacked the men and material to conduct bombing raids except intermittently from its flying field at Dunkirk. Brilliant as were the exploits of the sailors under Vice Admiral Roger Keyes and Captain Carpenter of the Vindictive, later in the war, they failed to smash or to bottle up these bases.
Incessant and ferocious bombing by night and day would make them untenable. This was how it appeared to Lieutenant Robert Lovett. The merit of his conception was in the realization that here was a job for the United States, with its unlimited resources, to undertake and carry through. The next thing was to convert the naval p171 authorities to this idea. Here was where Lovett conspicuously made his mark. Amidst the welter of schemes and programs, some of them plausible, others fantastic, which flooded the aviation desks in London, Paris, and Washington, he was able to present the lucid, orderly data for selecting the Northern Bombing Group as one of the big things to be attempted.
As the first step, he was granted continuous travel orders by Captain Cone, after leaving Felixstowe, and took the courses in English schools of bombing and gunnery. Then he spent several weeks in the R. N. A. S. Intelligence Department, absorbing information like a sponge and indefatigably making notes. He was more than ever convinced that an enormous wastage of effort, men, and material could be saved. Returning to Paris in January he was appointed Assistant to the Chief of Operations at the American Naval Aviation headquarters. He explains:
While there I devoted the office hours to studying the formation and coördination of our existing seaplane stations on the coast, and my evenings I utilized in preparing a plan for the formation of a group which could be employed in attacking submarine and naval bases, concentration points, naval stores and factories. I had proceeded up to this time on the theory of using seaplanes, but at a meeting of the Allied Air Council at Army Air Headquarters, I met Colonel , D. S. O., and interested him in my plans. He was the greatest authority on bombing that the war produced. He proved conclusively to me that it was impracticable to use seaplanes because in an attack on these bases they would come in contact with land planes acting in defense of these points and their inferiority would result in their destruction. Furthermore, it would necessitate the attacks being carried on in the daylight, which would mean high altitude bombing and would reduce the chances of hitting the objective.
Colonel introduced me to the heads of the British Night Bombing Squadrons then operating at Coudekerque, and these officers very kindly placed their records at my disposal as well as p172 their personal advice. It became evident to me that night planes were the medium with which we could do the greatest damage, and my suggestions being then completed, I took the matter up with Captain Cone, and told him that Colonel Grey would be delighted to talk the matter over and give any assistance he could. At this time Colonel Grey was attached to the Army to organize their bombing squadrons and depots. I explained that Colonel Grey had done the real work in obtaining the statistics comprised in my report and I urged that in view of the disorganized condition of the Army Air Service at that time, which was suffering from too much politics and too little gray matter, Colonel Grey be attached to our service for the furthering of such plans as met with the approval of Captain Cone.
In order to obtain a working knowledge of such operations and particularly to learn the enemy country and the nature of the objectives, I requested permission to be attached to the British Squadrons then operating against these objectives on the front. This commission was granted and I was given one week to complete my duties in Paris. At this time I was supposed to take command of the air station at L'Aber Vrach and it required a good deal of pleading with Captain Cone and Captain Craven, my immediate superior, to convince them that the course I suggested was the wiser.
On January 28th, 1918, Lieutenant Lovett submitted a memorandum as the result of all these studies and conferences. This document, together with the reports that followed it, exercised an important influence in the creation and operating plans of the Northern Bombing Group.
1. Before this receives consideration I wish to make it clear that I understand the difficulty of undertaking too much at once, and also heartily agree with the prevailing feeling that some end for our present program must be in sight before anything new can receive full discussion. It would seem, nevertheless, imperative that plans for the future must be made at the same time at which present operations are on foot and should in no way conflict with these. For that reason I call particular attention to the fact that the purpose of this is solely to gain exact knowledge for future use.
p173 2. It is understood that in the coming year a new factor will enter the operations of the U. S. Naval Air Service, since we cannot hope to confine ourselves solely to patrol duty. I believe that bombing raids upon U‑boat harbors will be not only necessary but the only way to meet and check the U‑boat menace.
3. Facts seem to indicate that only a small percentage of U‑boats in commission are actually out on offensive duty at one time. For the waters of France and England less than 50; that would leave some 250 or 300 in home bases. A cursory examination would therefore lead us to conclude that the wisest way to check them would be to get them in large numbers, which means in their bases. In the case of Stations 14 and 151 I am convinced that, if operations from these are to be successful, the present type of boat will have to be discarded. I say this because the impossibility of piloting these boats at night is admitted by Captain Porte, who regards them as a boat designed solely for anti-submarine patrols and not for offensive bombers. The boat structure makes their employment at night an extremely hazardous and inefficient procedure unless advantage is taken of the very brightest full moon.
4. It would seem proper at this point to explain that the F type of boat, as developed by Captain Porte, was designed for a particular duty — that of anti-submarine patrols — and the possibility of it having to land at sea influences the design to such an extent that a seaworthy hull became a factor of the first importance. This of necessity lessens the carrying capacity for bombs. I wish to point out, therefore, that if this type of boat is confined to the type of duty for which it was expressly designed, in my mind there is nothing better at this date. Should it, however, be contemplated for any other type of duty, such as offensive bombing, I feel certain that its performance would not only be discouraging but extremely inefficient. It is distinctly a one‑duty boat.
5. As multi-motored machines become more general in use I am inclined to anticipate development of a machine which, relying upon its reserve power units, will be able to do away with the extra weight of hull and will be able to employ this in bombs. I firmly believe that the Germans will be the first to develop this type. If this is done it is merely a question of time before the F‑boats become obsolete. The logical successor of the F‑boats p174 is, therefore, a many motored land machine of the Handley-Page or Caproni type. The effectiveness of these machines cannot be over-estimated and at present, to my knowledge, no American pilot has ever gathered any personal information regarding them. If in the future, therefore, our operations will include some kind of an offensive warfare I believe it to be imperative that we gather all possible first hand information upon the Handley-Page and have it in mind when making arrangements for our 1919 program.
6. With reference to bombing attacks I believe the following to be the cardinal points:
1. A special type of machine is absolutely essential for this special work.
2. The most effective type of machine is undoubtedly night bombing. This, therefore, increases the importance of intimate knowledge of the operations of these machines; the method of landing them; the method of contact while on patrol and the way in which the object is reached and recognized.
3. The third point, second in importance only to the special type of machine, is a special pilot. This man should be trained for the type of work in which he is to take part and must know the science of it as well as possible.
7. If these three points are thought wise, the logical conclusions reached are that first hand information must be gathered regarding these — the large bombers — from an active source. This I should say was the Handley-Page Bombing Squadron now in operation. This Squadron is by far the most deadly weapon any of the Allies have yet discovered. Its effectiveness can only be realized when the actual reports of damage done by these planes are considered.
8. It is my conviction that the U. S. Naval Air Service can take part in the warfare ahead of anything at present contemplated, by specializing upon large bombing planes with a view to their use in future offensives. I cannot urge too strongly that we start now to gather information in order that we may have a working basis upon which to plan future programs, and above all so that in this planning we may know what average performance to expect.
9. I respectfully request that I may be allowed to visit the p175 R. N. A. S. Handley-Page Bombing Squadron, at present stationed south of Dunkirk, with a view to collecting all possible data on their operations and with a special intention of discovering the possibilities of these planes and the opinions of the pilots upon the use of pontoons on the present Handley-Page type. While the present status of our stations is such that the Operations Division is seldom called upon for any great amount of work, I believe the absence of my slight help would scarcely be noticed.
As a result of this memorandum, Lieutenant Lovett received orders to report to Captain Lambe at Dunkirk and was attached to No. 7 Squadron, 5th Wing, with which he served three months. His purpose was threefold; to collect information which might serve to organize naval squadrons for seems with land machines; to get practical experience in the operation of large night bombing planes; and to find the best sites for locating the new stations required.
Lieutenant E. O. McDonnell was a strong supporter of the plan and became associated with it during these preliminary surveys. He also was sent to visit Captain Lambe's organization at this same time. The two reports submitted, Lovett's and his own, were the basis upon which the general scheme of the Northern Bombing Group was approved by the American naval authorities abroad and the Department in Washington.
They are far livelier reading than most official documents of a technical nature. What Bob Lovett calls 'practical experience' meant diving into a hellish barrage •three miles square. The flaming onions startled him more than the showers of 'Archie.' Unofficially he confesses that he was scared to look out of the machine. It wasn't so bad if you were the first or second machine in the flight formation, but the tail-ender caught it when the barrage was well stirred up and going strong. Wow, you were combing those flaming onions out of your hair! With the emotional phrases carefully repressed, Lieutenant Lovett's report was made out as follows:
p176 1. In accordance with Commander's Orders, dated March 20, 1918, I left Paris with a motorcycle and sidecar on March 21, arriving at Dunkirk the same night. On the following day I reported to Captain C. L. Lambe, D. S. O., R. N., for duty in connection with night bombing in the naval area and the location of suitable sites for six night bombing squadrons and six day bombing squadrons in the Dunkirk-Calais region. A separate report upon the location of these fields and the establishment of a central repair base is submitted and no further reference will be made to them in this report.
I was assigned by Captain Lambe to No. 7 Squadron, No. 5 Wing, at Coudekerque. There I was questioned regarding previous experience and training and upon finding that I had taken the R. N. A. S. course at Felixstowe they attached me definitely to a machine. My first flight was made the evening I reported. As the German offensive started on that day all R. N. A. S. Squadrons were instructed to use every effort toward making their work effective, and this order resulted in attempting to raid even in unpropitious weather conditions.
On March 23 a light mist and smoke screen made the ground visibility bad but higher the night was fine. A raid was made by four Handley-Pages on Bruges Dock. Visibility over the objective was excellent — •6272 pounds of explosives were dropped on the Docks and excellent results were obtained. All four machines returned safely and made good landings in spite of the ground mist which rolled in about midnight.
2. On the following night Bruges Docks were again the objective, and thereafter raids were made on every possible night, and on different objectives as the military needs of the moment demanded. I was allowed to go on every raid while I was there, even though many were outside the naval area. We made altogether eight attempts, succeeding in every case but two and on these raids being forced back after crossing the lines due to encountering hail or rain over enemy territory.
German concrete submarine shelters, Bruges
3. In the bombing of Bruges Docks the effect of concentrating on one objective was clearly shown. In five days we attacked Bruges four times, twice in the day time. The Germans have concentrated many highly trained anti-aircraft batteries and seventeen searchlights about Bruges Docks. It is considered the most dangerous objective there is. Its defenses far exceed anything one could imagine. On the first night an extremely intense p177 barrage was put up, consisting of 'flaming onions' — a series of green luminous balls attached to one another somewhat in the manner of chain shot — of shrapnel shells and of high explosives. Defensive balloons have been reported, although we encountered none or else escaped them on the raids in which I took part. The barrage is almost box‑like with layers of high explosive and shrapnel and an over-generous supply of green balls. Due to the small size of the objective and the practice of confining efforts against the Dock alone, the enemy is able to obtain a terrific concentration of his anti-aircraft defenses. On the first night the barrage was very intense, although the searchlights were somewhat hampered by a ground mist. On the second the barrage was more intense than that of the first night, due probably to the anticipation of a raid. On the third day a day raid was effected. On the fourth day a second day raid was effected, the anti-aircraft growing weaker all the time until on the last night only high explosive and green balls were put up at us, the supply of shrapnel evidently having been exhausted. The day squadrons reported that their second trip met with less anti-aircraft and more aircraft defenses.
Anti-aircraft at Bruges
A trip a few days later found the defenses in perfect order again, an additional searchlight having been added and an extra supply of 'flaming onions' seems to have been collected. These green balls were designed, it is claimed, to set fire to a machine which they might strike and with which they might become entangled. Early machines being covered with oil and gas drippings were probably affected by these green balls but the modern machines seem to be immune from such danger. They serve now as examples of 'hate' and are probably designed to intimidate the pilots and frighten them from a straight course to the desired objective.
4. On the raids behind the battle against railway junctions and lines of communication, a difference in the type of anti-aircraft encountered was observed. Instead of a barrage the important railway junctions seem to have highly trained crews instructed to shoot at the machines and not attempt a large expenditure of ammunition. It was surprising how accurate the enemy anti-aircraft was. They seem to have little difficulty in finding the correct height almost immediately upon warning of our approach. Their searchlights are far more powerful than those employed by the Belgians and French from Ypres to the coast.
p178 During a raid on Bruges Docks, carried out on the night of March 31, we were caught by the seventeen searchlights at Bruges and held by them until we passed over the City. The pilot attempted a second run in the opposite direction over the Works to leave a bomb that had hung up, and they caught us on a second run also. I succeeded in putting two lights out; this was probably due to the fact that the crews of these were frightened at the tracers directed toward them down the beams. Three Lewis machine guns are mounted in the gun‑layers cockpit. During the raids on Railway junctions we carried about 25 trays of •97 pounds each but the most I used on one trip was nine. This was when a railway station and trains were fired upon.
5. With our full load of bombs we were unable to climb more than 7000 or 8000 feet. This necessitated our bombing from a glide, making us some 5000 or 6000 feet over the objective. At this altitude we were frequently hit by shrapnel and high explosive fragments; never, however, in a vital spot. One blade of our starboard propeller was badly broken due to being hit by a fragment of high explosive. The motor ran, however, with very little vibration when throttled and the other three blades showed no twisting upon landing. The majority of holes were in the wings in almost every instance, or in the tail; explosive bullets fired at us over railway junctions and while crossing the lines in practically every instance lodged in the tail planes. On one occasion a new tail plane was necessitated by the fact that the main spar had been cracked and some aluminium tubing carried away.
1. Continuous bomb of one objective. The effectiveness of concentrated bombing of a single objective until it has been rendered untenable, has been shown by attacks on Bruges, Zeebrugge and St. Denis-Westren. It is observed that, due to the enormous expenditure of anti-aircraft ammunition the continuous use of the guns and the effect on the morale of the gun crews, the defenses became weaker each succeeding night. It would appear, therefore, that given enough machines to bomb an objective all night, with day squadrons to carry on the work in the day time, on each succeeding day the defenses should become less effective, thus allowing day squadrons to bomb from lower altitudes and night squadrons to increase their effectiveness. If on the last two or three days of a prolonged continuous bombing operation p179 numerous small incendiary bombs were dropped to complete by fire the destruction wrought by the high explosive bombs, I believe such a submarine stronghold as Bruges, Zeebrugge or Ostende could be made untenable if not stamped off the map.
Explosion at Zeebrugge
Allied bombing, Bruges
Germans inspecting 'dud' English bomb
2. Danger of intermittent bombing. I am convinced from my limited recent experience that a distinct danger lies in intermittent bombing, due partly to the moral effect on the people of the town who may feel that their defenses have succeeded, but due primarily to the fact that any intermission is utilised by the enemy not only to strengthen his defences but also to accumulate a vast supply of ammunition. This has been shown by the English operations in the Naval area. In a previous report I gave the opinion of Captain Lambe regarding this matter and the importance of it has become increasingly evident. The English bombing squadrons cannot concentrate on one point until it is destroyed, since they are subject to call by the Military Headquarters in the field and are compelled to bomb such objectives as the military needs of the moment demand. This arrangement keeps them from concentrating their efforts in the naval area and upon one base and forces them to bomb ammunition dumps, railway junctions, etc., over a widely scattered area, thus giving their main objectives time to recuperate and strengthen their defences. I would urge, therefore, that the mission of our bombing program in the naval area be very definitely understood and agreed upon, and that the Commander on the spot be allowed to concentrate his entire effort within the naval district, taking each base in succession until it is destroyed, and, further, that it be clearly understood by the Department and the Military authorities that these squadrons shall not be called upon to do any promiscuous bombing of military objectives except at times of great crises.
3. Need of carefully trained pilots. I cannot too strongly urge that the greatest care be used in training pilots for such night bombing work, as an exact knowledge of the geography of the area in which their efforts are to be directed is of cardinal importance. The pilot must know the tricks of night flying so well that he can devote himself to the geographical landmarks. To obtain experienced pilots it would seem that a carefully developed school for the instruction of pilots in night flying, and especially in bombing, be established upon the conditions existing on active service. Such a school could, I believe, be organized in the p180 United States and training given to pilots in night flying and bombing, and to some extent in the geography of the country, the important landmarks, etc., by the use of large topographical models. I respectfully suggest that this matter be carefully considered and that the possibility of placing an experienced practical British Bombing Expert in charge be investigated.
4. Second to the proper training of pilots I am inclined to place the need of a carefully developed meteorological service, whose duty it should be to inform the bombing squadrons of the wind velocity at different altitudes, of the weather conditions existing at various points along the coast and down the lines, and a system where by reports may be received from these different stations upon telephoning to these stations before starting a raid.
5. Due to the frequent ground mist in the Dunkirk-Calais region, I was impressed with the need for secondary or emergency landing field at which merely a system of landing lights would be necessary, so that in the event of a mist making landing at the home field dangerous or impossible, or in the event of bad weather making further progress dangerous, the bombing planes could be signalled from these emergency fields and land there for the night. Furthermore, should more than one Handley-Page squadron be housed on the same field, it would probably be desirable to have some of these machines land at secondary fields. In the report on landing field I submit a further suggestion in this connection.
I submit herewith copies of notes made upon the organization of a squadron, the duties of the various officers, the methods of effecting raids, the system of signals, the equipment of hangars, rigging and assembling of the Handley-Page machine, the overhaul of the motors and the raid control of a Handley-Page squadron. These notes are not up to date in every instance since they were made before the change in complement of the Handley-Page squadrons, and several changes have been found necessary and desirable in other parts. These notes were made by an expert in the R. F. C. who was gathering information for the establishment of R. F. C. Bombing Squadrons, and a copy was given to Lieutenant McDonnell and myself by the Records Officer who had prepared them for submitting to the Air Force.
Lieutenant McDonnell outlined in detail the proposed p181 organization of the bombing squadrons. It was comprehended that to wait for the necessary material and equipment to be assembled and forwarded from the United States might mean a delay of months. Meanwhile there was sufficient personnel abroad to man Handley-Page and Caproni bombing planes as fast as deliveries could be obtained in England and Italy. Lieutenant McDonnell's report covers all this ground. Parts of it read:
March 20th I made my first raid in a Handley-Page. Flight Lieutenant Allen, a Canadian, was pilot. My station was in the tail, to man the upper and lower rear guns protecting the tail. Our bombs were dropped in a line across the Bruges docks where submarines are housed and repaired, and where there is much shipping activity. Bombs were dropped from an altitude of 5800 feet. The bombs dropped were four 250, and six 112‑pound bombs. One of these bombs stuck in its rack. I shoved this bomb out as we turned and passed back over Bruges. A good line across the dock was plain to the pilot and observer. The anti-aircraft defenses of this place are probably the best in the world. An intensive barrage is put up over the Bruges dock when an attacking plane is heard approaching. This barrage consists of a countless number of green luminous balls, reaching from near the ground to •about 10,000 feet, and also a large amount of shrapnel and high explosive bursting from about 4000 to 10,000 feet. A plane going below 4000 feet would be picked up by the searchlights and attacked with many large calibre machine guns. I counted sixteen searchlights of great power at Bruges. Four planes participated in this raid.
German destroyer and sub hit by Allied bombs in Bruges harbor
German destroyer shelter at Bruges, struck by British bombs
German concrete dugouts on the Mole, Zeebrugge
On March 22nd bad weather prevented a raid. Lieutenant (j.g.) R. A. Lovett, U. S. N. R. F., arrived from Paris and we called together on Captain Lambe. Lieutenant Lovett had already gotten many suggestions, and advice from Captain Lambe on a previous trip. These were, I believe, embodied in his report. The following are the most important results of this talk with Captain Lambe:
Captain Lambe strongly endorses our proposed entrance into the bombing operations. He believes we should have six daylight and six night bombing squadrons. With these squadrons, he would concentrate in turn on each one of the objectives in the p182 Dunkirk area. He would constantly bomb an objective, day and night, each succeeding flight coming lower as the anti-aircraft defense becomes feebler, the last flights dropping many small bombs and thermite incendiary bombs to entirely destroy the place, as it is his belief, that after a number of continuous raids, the anti-aircraft and fire working parties would be demoralized and hors de combat.
On March 23rd, I visited several aerodrome sightsº with Lieutenant Lovett in the violence of Gravelines. Those sightsº were considered suitable for further investigation and have been noted. The commencement of the shelling of Dunkerque with the 15‑inch guns was made as Lieutenant Lovett and myself passed through the city. The first two shells dropped close by us as we passed the docks on our motorcycle. This night I went on another bombing trip with Flight Lieutenant Allen. This time I went as gunner in the forward cockpit. I had a much better chance of observing everything that went on. Bombs were dropped in approximately the same manner as on the first raid. Anti-aircraft was very intense, bursting close enough to shake the machine, and to allow us to smell the explosions. In passing through the barrage our machine was hit in three different places. One 250‑pound bomb stuck in the rack. A note was passed back to the rear gunner to push this down when signalled to with a flashlight. On the way home we made a line over the Aartrick aerodrome and the bomb which had been stuck was pushed down. A direct hit, or a very close one was claimed.
On March 24th I went on a daylight raid in a DH‑9 with Flight Lieutenant Stevens. We carried eight 20‑pound bombs. Six machines participated in the raid, flying in formation. My position was that of rear gunner and observer, which necessitated working the high altitude sights and dropping the bombs, in addition to fighting the after gun. We got away in formation, flew down the coast to Calais and back up the Belgian coast at sea to get our altitude. We crossed inland near Zeebrugge at an altitude of •about 15,500 feet, coaching the pilot on a line across the Bruges docks. I dropped my bombs in a line commencing just before the sight was on and ending after the sight was on. An intense anti-aircraft fire was immediately put up, the Germans seeming to get our altitude immediately. High explosive was bursting in the midst of our formation with great rapidity and precision. Several machines were hit, — the one I was in p183 getting a hole in the wing close to the fuselage. Shortly after this, five German fighting machines appeared at our tail. Several of them attacking, one was shot down by one of our planes in our formation, another came in close enough to be engaged by my opposite machine and myself. I was able to get a good burst in at this plane as it attacked, placing my sights right on the front of the machine, and observed my tracers to pass right under the body. As tracers usually go a little low, it is very likely the plane was hit. Before I was able to get another burst, the plane did a steep turn and headed in the opposite direction. Three of the German machines followed us back to the lines, keeping out of range, apparently waiting for a straggler with a weak engine to fall out. Several other German machines came on to have a look, but apparently decided it was unwise to attack. One of our planes was quite badly shot up, having part of its rudder shot away, a large hole where a piece of shell went in the side of the fuselage and out of the top, and two machine‑gun bullets through its forward main spar. All, however, returned safely.
On March 26th, Captain Cone arrived and called on Captain Lambe with Lieutenant Chevalier and myself. That night the objective was changed to the railroad junction at Valenciennes. As the British Army was being hard pressed, it was necessary to render them assistance by bombing an important junction to the rear of the German line. This was a distance of •about ninety miles to the Southeast of Dunkirk. Ten Handley-Page's participated. On the way down we climbed to 10,000 feet and dropped our bombs in a line over the junction. Anti-aircraft was active all the way down in German territory, but was not particularly bad at Valenciennes. Returning, we were caught by a searchlight at Lille. This held steadily to us, the pilot seeming to be unable to get out of its ray. Accordingly, as had been arranged, I opened up with the rear lower gun, firing down the beam with tracer bullets, spraying them well around, which put out the searchlight. We were caught after crossing the lines into our territory by bad weather which obscured the moon and stars, forcing us to descend to 3000 feet. Gusty winds made us lose our way. Heading in a northerly direction we finally hit the coast, turned east, then west, found ourselves at Calais, then turned east until we found Dunkerque and landed at our aerodrome after about five hours in the air. Two of the ten planes did not return. It is possible that they landed in our lines somewhere p184 and then have gotten back the next day after I left. This night a German, twin engine Gotha came down in an aerodrome close to ours. I did not get the details, but it probably lost its way.
By destroying the bases at Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges, we will have put a stop to all submarine operations from the Belgian Coast. Just how much of the total damage is done by these bases, I am not prepared to say, but certainly believe a large proportion is. Intelligence reports from Bruges alone show many submarines docked at Bruges and undergoing overhaul and repairs. Submarines from Bruges operate from the harbor at Zeebrugge. Intelligence reports have shown that something like forty submarines operate from these two places. It has always been hard for authorities to realize the damage done by bombing squadrons, but it has been proven by the Handley-Page squadrons beyond a doubt, that great damage has been done. The very fact of the wonderful aircraft defense at Bruggeº and the enormous expenditure of ammunition at this place shows that the Germans dread these bombardments.
It is recommended that at the earliest possible moment, six night squadrons of ten each bombardment planes be placed in operation in the Dunkerque area, and in addition to this, in the same area, six daylight bombardment squadrons, eighteen DH‑9's each. It is recommended that Captain Lambe's offer be accepted and arrangements be made so that our first squadrons will work at the same aerodrome with the British squadrons; our pilots and observers working with their pilots and observers, and that as our pilots become experienced our own squadrons be formed. With this end in view, I recommend that we first order 100 Handley-Page and Caproni's and 200 DH‑9's. This will allow a surplus for training and breakage. This would be a beginning, and as we are able, we should expand more. Next, start training schools for bombing in the States. Train pilots to fly by day and by night and to make long flights at nights, finding objectives in an unknown country; train the observers in navigation, charts, and maps, bomb-dropping and machine gunnery. This will probably come along later and these schools would furnish material to build up our squadrons.
For the start, we should send the best pilots and observers we have right out to the front with Handley-Pages and Capronis and work them in with the British squadrons. The British could p185 easily accommodate enough pilots and observers to give us a start, and we would not have to wait for our school in the States, which will probably take some time to get going. Aerodromes will be selected, a special party being detailed for this purpose and arrangements with the British and French put under way. Commanding Officers for the first squadrons should be designated and started to work on their organizations and gathering their personnel and equipment.
Bob Lovett, visiting Senators, and a Caproni
Some of Bob's bombs and observers
Soon after this report was submitted, Lieutenant McDonnell was sent to the United States to undertake the tremendous task of arranging for the material and machines, special training of pilots and so on. It was a continual struggle to keep things moving with so many other urgent demands clamoring for attention in the Navy Department and the difficulty of convincing one bureau or another that the Navy ought to be in this business of conducting air operations in land machines. The Marine Corps argued that it had a prior claim on such a program as this. This was adjusted by making it a joint enterprise, with Major A. A. Cunningham, an experienced pilot and an able administrator, in command of the Marine force.
In a long message cabled to Admiral Sims on April 17th, Captain Cone presented the requirements of the Northern Bombing Group. Part of this is worth quoting to show what a really huge project it was.
After careful investigation and consultation with officers on the ground, strongly recommend that following program be undertaken immediately. First establish six squadrons night bombers of ten planes each, either Handley-Page or Caproni type. Personnel requires 180 officers and 1764 men including 72 pilots, 72 observers, 144 aerial gunners. Wastage will require six pilots, six observers, and six squadrons and in addition ten spares to be held at bomber repair base and twenty spares at repair base Pauillac. Total 90 night-bombing planes required. Wastage will require 20 additional planes per month.
Second, establish six squadrons day bombers of 18 planes each, either DH or Bristol types. Personnel required 282 officers, 1266 p186 men, including 120 pilots, 120 observers. Wastage will require 16 pilots and 16 observers monthly in addition. One hundred and eight planes required for six squadrons and in addition 36 spares at bomber repair base and 54 planes at Pauillac.
. . . Fourth, establish bomber repair base behind squadrons as branch of general assembly and repair base Pauillac. Personnel required, 40 officers and 1960 men.
. . . Repair base will require total industrial floor space of 120,000 square feet, preferably four buildings 80 by 200 feet, five buildings 50 by 100 feet, balance in small buildings built locally. Men will be housed in tents at outset, later in light wooden barracks made in France. Require tents for 2000 men at outset. Send necessary hardware, stoves, and roofing for camps for 5097 men and 527 officers. Ship also one complete dispensary medical outfit for 2000 men and six outfits for 500 men each. Ship following motor transportation or equivalent, all with complete supply of spares, 22 Cadillacs, 24 Ford touring, 24 motor cycles with side-cars, 24 three quarter ton trucks, 36 three ton trucks, 34 six ton trucks, 34 flat two ton trailers, 34 wing trailers, 18 five hundred gallon tank trailers, 34 light tenders or passenger trucks, 46 heavy tenders, 16 ambulances, seven searchlights on trucks, 15 ten‑drop telephone switchboards, one fifty-drop board, 250 miles of circuit, necessary lighting material for all shops, hangars, and barracks, 28 generating sets, 40 sixty-gallon extinguishers on wheels, 300 three-gallon extinguishers, 1000 Pyrene extinguishers, 7000 fifty-gallon gasoline drums.
All of the above in addition to material previously ordered or requested for seaplane and airship stations. Ordnance requirements to follow. Will also require list tools and supplies similar to British establishment. Lists to be delivered by Lieutenant McDonnell.
The last sentence is eloquent. If you doubt it, ask Eddie McDonnell who had to go shopping for these few little things! Harry Davison has testified that most of the stuff was miraculously assembled and delivered at the wharves for shipment. And, following this, the long-suffering McDonnell had to fly Capronis from Italy! No wonder that Admiral Sims states in his book that 'Lieutenant Commander E. O. McDonnell deserves the greatest p187 credit for the energetic and resourceful manner in which he executed this difficult task.'
As you know, the complement of the Northern Bombing Group was subsequently reduced by the Navy Department to eight squadrons, four day and four night, only part of which had been assembled when the Armistice was signed. Eastleigh, England, was finally chosen as the assembly and repair base instead of Pauillac.
Meanwhile Bob Lovett had been keeping everlastingly at it. He left the British squadrons for a while to return to Paris and prepare organization plans in detail, to draw up 'type allowance lists,' to get together material in France and England, wherever it could be found. It is not too much to say that he knew more about the Northern Bombing Group than any one else. Captain Hanrahan had been senior officer of a destroyer division cruising on convoy duty out of Queenstown and had made a fine reputation for leadership and as a competent fighting sailor. He had to familiarize himself with the novel and complex problems of the Northern Bombing Group. In this he found Lieutenant Lovett invaluable.
Having cleared his desk in Paris, Bob went back to Captain Lambe's headquarters and selected three fields to be developed for the use of the Northern Bombing Group. Lieutenant Fearing and Lieutenant Guggenheim had handled the transaction whereby the Italian Government promised to deliver Caproni planes for temporary use until the Navy could obtain its own machines from the United States. Lieutenant Commander Atlee Edwards explains that Italy 'agreed to supply us with a number of bombing planes for which it was to receive in turn cargoes of raw materials, such as iron, lumber, etc.'
This was Lovett's reason for making a visit to the 18th Italian Squadron then operating on the Rheims front. He desired to make the acquaintance of the Caproni. Other p188 members of the Unit learned to know it more intimately. Their expurgated opinions and harrowing experiences will be met with in later chapters of this history.a
On May 13th, Lovett turned up again at Captain Lambe's headquarters to learn more about wholesale bombing methods under Colonel Grey and to advance the preparations for the elaborate American naval project. Discouragements and disappointments began to cast shadows over it during the summer. To a large extent, the Capronis proved to be a wash‑out. For this the American officers who had recommended them were in no wise responsible. The machines delivered failed to comply with the specifications. The motors were inferior, the workmanship faulty. 'We were basing all our hopes on the arrival of the day bombers in July, and also the 44 D. H. type planes, says Bob. 'These, of course, did not arrive, nor did the Handley-Pages which were promised first in August and then in October, and which never came. The British, however, agreed to supply our wants temporarily, and throughout the period of forming our group were most helpful, loyal, and unselfish. We could have accomplished very little without their training facilities and equipment.'
It looked as though the Northern Bombing Group might bring together most of the members of the First Yale Unit who were serving overseas. It did, in fact, result in something like a reunion for a brief period before the Armistice. Lovett had a finger in this, I have no doubt. He believed in the crowd and had no hesitation in announcing it. He was in a position to know their records in France and England and says of them:
It was interesting to note that at every station to which members of the Unit were ordered they became Chief Pilots or heads of departments. The main reasons for this, as it impressed me, were their enthusiasm and initiative. These qualities counted tremendously with enlisted men and war‑worn Allies. p189 I have heard it said time and again, while in a position to hear such things as assistant to the Chief of Operations, 'What we want most is a man with something to fight for.' To my mind that is exactly what every member of the Unit had, and it is more than a coincidence that in every fitness report forwarded to the commander for his signature, these men were graded highest.
'During the formation of the Italian squadrons, Lieutenant Callan, the commanding officer, became very much excited because he felt that he was not getting enough experienced officers as flight commanders. One morning in a meeting of the Executive Committee Lieutenant Callan jumped up and exclaimed, 'If I don't get one of that Yale crowd of fliers for each of my squadrons, so I'll know what to build on, we might as well hold a tarpaulin muster for the whole lot of us before we start.'
Again in London when the Killingholme project was demanding pilots and the Northern Bombing Group was in need of the same, a knock-down war of words took place in Captain Twining's office between him and Atlee Edwards because the latter said that the authorities in the Bureau were 'letting Commander Whiting hog all of the Davison Unit.' Edwards therefore cabled a protest to the Bureau at which Kenneth Whiting came back with a counter claim that 'the only place he knew of in the air service that was getting the pork was the Northern Bombing Group.'
I mention these incidents, not to flatter the individual members, but to show that the Unit, as a whole, had made a name and reputation for itself. It was seldom asked whether one of these men was a first-class pilot, but merely whether he belonged to the Unit. This was good enough.
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