Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bombing Constantinople

As the nations of Europe were facing the outbreak of World War One, the German battle cruiser Goeben and her companion, the light cruiser Breslau, were chased through the Mediterranean between August 3 and August 10, 1914. Both ships made it to Constantinople, and they became the only modern units of the Turkish Navy. The ships remained crewed by German sailors and Admiral Souchon, the commander of the German ships, became Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish Navy. During the war, the two German vessels engaged the Imperial Russian Navy on several occasions and they also supported Turkish ground troops.

A mission to bomb the Goeben, or Yavuz Sultan Selim, as she was known in Turkish service, was conceived late in 1916 by Squadron Commander Kenneth A. Savory of the Royal Navy. A Handley Page O/100 heavy bomber was to be used, and initially a torpedo attack was considered, but as the planning proceeded it was decided to use 112lb bombs instead.

It was 2,000 miles from Manston in Kent to Moudros on the Greek island of Lemnos. There the bomber was to be armed and fly to Constantinople and Stenia Bay where the Goeben was anchored. Extensive preparations were required before undertaking the mission, the first intercontinental bombing mission in history, and on May 23 the aircraft took off. The crew was composed of Commander Savory, co-pilot Lieutenant McClellan, flight engineer Lieutenant Rawlings and two mechanics. The O/100 was loaded with spare parts, essentially enough to build another engine, as well as personal equipment and two propellers that were strapped to the side of the bomber.

Commander Savory and Lieutenant his crew finally took off on the first leg of their journey. Despite the 700-mile range of the O/100, the trip was divided into 200 mile segments, and the bomber flew from Hendon to Paris and through France down the Rhone Valley to Marseilles and then on to Pisa and Rome, where the crew was received a “very hearty welcome” from the Italian Air Staff. The flight then proceeded to Naples, Otranto and over the Adriatic to cross the Albanian mountain ranges before arriving at Salonica. The crew reported that they had been chased by hostile horsemen while crossing Albania, who apparently were hoping that the aircraft would be forced to land.

O/100 3124 reached Moudros at the end of the first week of June. The attack was scheduled for July 3, but the aircraft engines overheated and the mission had to be postponed until July 5. However, this time a burst tire forced the mission to be postponed yet again. Bad weather three days later caused another delay, but on July 9 the O/100 finally took off at 8.47pm, and it reached Constantinople just five minutes before midnight. Constantinople was apparently brilliantly illuminated, and the Goeben was easily spotted since it had all lights on and men walking the deck.

After flying parallel to the Goeben, and circling twice to determine the necessary data for bomb release, four bombs were dropped from a height of 800 feet. The first salvo missed the battle cruiser, but one or two submarines were supposedly hit. However, after circling around the target, the second salvo of four bombs scored a direct hit on the Goeben.The lights were instantly turned off, and the bomber flew off in the direction of the Golden Horn, dropping two bombs on the “General”, a converted liner that served as a headquarters for the German Imperial Staff supporting the Turkish forces. Savory then steered his bomber to the Turkish War Office and dropped his remaining two bombs at the building. He claimed to have hit the War Office with the aid of the light from the fire that his first bombs had caused. By then, the Turkish anti-aircraft defenses were fully alert and guns were opening fire at the O/100, and it was later on found that 26 bullets had penetrated the aircraft, with one bullet disabling one of the engines. The bomber spent in all 35 minutes over the target before returning to Moudros, and the mission was deemed a success. Commander Savory could add a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order.

The O/100 remained at Moudros after the mission, since there was a lack of spare parts, but it was used both for anti-submarine patrols and to bomb targets in both Adrianopolis and Panderma. On September 30 the aircraft took off to attack the railway station at Haydarpasa near Constantinople, but the O/100 was forced to do an emergency landing at sea due to a broken oilpipe. The three crewmen, Lieutenants Wise, Aird and Alcock were all taken prisoner. Lieutenant John Alcock would later achieve fame by crossing the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy together with Arthur Whitten Brown.

 O/100 No 3124 arriving back at Mudros after one of its bombing sorties over the Eastern Mediterranean in the summer of 1917.

Left: Flight-Commander Savory, D.S.O. and Bar, who took part in this raid, with his greyhound mascot. Right: Squadron-Commander Smyth-Piggot, D.S.O., with his mascot

A rather fanciful rendering in a 1918 issue of Flight illustrating Commander Savory’s bombing of the Goeben.


British Airmen Bomb the Cruiser Goeben. New Zealand Herald, Volume LIV, Issue 16590, July 13, 1917

British Bombs hit Turks’ Ships and War Office. The Chicago Tribune, July 12, 1917

London to Constantinople by Air. Flight, December 20, 1917

Turkish Fleet Bombed. Bendigo Advertiser, July 13, 1917

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Death in Venice

Venice was not only the major Italian naval base in the Northern Adriatic, but is also housed – and still houses – a cultural heritage that is second to none. France offered to assist Italy in defending Venice against possible Austrian air attacks, and the Italian General Staff approved the French offer to deploy scouting aircraft in the area. On August 13, 1915, a force commanded by a Captain Michel de Chalonge left Lyon bound for Venice, where they were greeted by members of the Italian General Staff. De Chalonge’s small unit was composed of three pilots – including de Clange himself - three observers and another 30 ground staff, including a tailor and four cooks. The unit was equipped with Nieuport 11 and/or possibly Nieuport 10 aircraft, but they traded in their Nieuports for SPAD VIIs at some point in 1916. The small French unit was initially based at the Bazzera aerodrome near Mestre. This was one of the the first of several French air units to be deployed to Italy during the First World War, including other fighter units and a seaplane squadron.

Meanwhile, the Serenissima had prepared for an aerial assault: in Piazza San Marco, the portals of the ancient basilica had been walled in by timber and sand bags, while the Quadriga, the statue of four chariot horses which had been a feature of the Piazza San Marco since it was looted from Constantinople in 1204, had been dismantled and sent to be stored in Rome. Local historians remarked that Venice had been transformed from a city of art to just one part of the front. 

Austrian air raids and other aerial activity did occur in the vicinity of Venice on a regular basis from 1915 and onwards. Although the Austro-Hungarian strategic bombing campaign of World War One was fairly limited for a number of reasons, including the lack of strategic bombers, the Austrians flew in all 42 bombing missions over Venice alone between 1915 and 1918, mainly after the front had advanced to within striking distance of Austrian aircraft based at Pula some 100 miles away across the Adriatic Sea but also from bases at Campoformido. Day- and nighttime raids were typically carried out by standard B- or C-type reconnaissance two-seaters, although a twin-engined bomber, the Bardenburg G-I appeared in late 1916, even if only a dozen were built. The Austrian Navy also contributed to the bombing raids with various naval aircraft.

A letter written in September of 1915 by the Venice-based American painter Ralph Curtis to the renown patron-of-the-arts Isabella Stewart Gardner describes the Austrian air raids and the blackout measures:

“The mosquitos from Pula come buzzing over nearly every fine night, and drop bombs for half an hour or so. . . . Venice is like a lovely prima donna in deep mourning. All the gilded angels wear sack-cloth painted dirty grey. Anything that shines is covered. At night all is as black as in the dark ages. "Serrenos" call out "all is well" every half hour. But when danger is signalled the elec[tric] light is cut off, sirens blow, cannon firebombs explode and the whole city shakes on its piles. All the hotels but the Danieli's are hospitals.”

Another raid took place on October 24, 1915, at around 10pm. Venice was lit up by the moon, and Austrian aircraft were aiming to bomb the railway station and the iron bridge outside the station. The planes did circle the city for a good two hours, but even then, precision bombing was difficult during the First World War. The church of Santa Maria de Nazaret, also called the Chiesa degli Scalzi (Church of the Barefoot Monks) and located north of the Grand Canal opposite the Ferrovia railway station was hit, shattering its roof and damaging two ceiling frescoes by 18th century master painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Venetian journalist Alvise Zorzi wrote that the Austrian bombing campaign caused "the final rupture of the continuity of Venetian customs and culture."

As the French settled in, the Bazzera aerodrome proved to be too far from Venice to enable interception of enemy aircraft. Therefore, the Italian naval officer in charge of the Venice naval base suggested that the Fort San Nicolò parade grounds in Lido (today’s Nicelli Airport) should be turned into an airfield. The conversion of the old parade ground took three weeks, and the French moved into the new base on December 1, 1915. The new base not only allowed a greater chance of intercepts, but also cooperation with the Italian Navy flying boats based at the nearby island of Sant'Andrea da Varriale.

Gabriele D’Annunzio and French aviators.

 French aviators outside the Albergo Paradiso.

The commander and his fellow officers were quartered in the Albergo Paradiso in Lido, and they rapidly became a focus of social life. This was apparently at least in part due to the excellent cuisine provided by the four chefs of the unit. Visitors included the Prince of Wales – the future king Edward VIII, and the Baroness Nicola Winspeare Guicciardi, who became a patron of the French aviators. Other guests included poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who had moved to Lido from Casetta Rossa on the Grand Canal to participate in the war as the commander of the San Marco squadron, a unit of Caproni and SIA 9B bombers which he used to perform experimental aerial torpedo attacks.

Baroness Nicola Winspeare Guicciardi


French aviators being decorated at the Piazza San Marco.