‘Operation Türkenkreuz’ was the name given to a series of aerial bombing attacks on England towards the end of World War One. Operation Türkenkreuz attempted to demoralise the population of London and the southeast but came too late in the war to have any real impact. The aircraft used in Operation Türkenkreuz were Gotha IV’s and Gotha V’s.
Gotha bombers, Germany’s equivalent of the British Handley Page bombers, were used to attack civilian targets in London and the east of England during World War One. The so-called ‘Gotha Raids’ brought the war home to those who lived in the southeast or eastern coastal towns. Previously the war had seemed somewhat remote; British soldiers who returned on leave complained about civilians holidaying on the beaches of Brighton and Margate and theatres and cafés being open in London. Yet just miles away as the crow flies, men fought in the squalid conditions found in trenches with all the hardships that brought. To those on leave it seemed somewhat surreal. It was the Zeppelin and Gotha raids that brought he war direct to the English people.
The Germans called the raids on England ‘Operation Türkenkreuz’. The Germans ended the raids by the Zeppelin airships in late 1916 as too many had been lost to British fighters. Now Hauptmann Ernest Brandenburg was tasked with organising raids by Gotha bombers. The raids were timed to start when the weather improved – spring 1917. Previously the distance involved to English targets and the less developed aircraft had meant that any raids had been dangerous to the German crews. The development of the Gotha IV (GIV) changed this. The raids were still dangerous to the crews but the Gotha IV was capable of flying for 500 miles at about 80 mph if the weather was favourable. It could also deliver a potent payload for the time. The GIV’s were based near Ghent in German-occupied Belgium, so a round trip to the south coast or London was well within the 500 miles maximum of the GIV.
The first raid of ‘Operation Türkenkreuz’ took place on May 25th 1917. The target was London. 23 GIV’s took part in the raid but 2 had to return to their base due to mechanical problems. As the remaining 21 flew to their target, the weather closed in. The flight commander decided that London was too dangerous in view of the weather and ordered an attack on their secondary target – Folkestone and the nearby army barracks at Shorncliffe on the Kent coast. Both targets were significantly nearer than London and also afforded the remaining 21 GIV’s a better chance of getting back to their bases before the RFC or RNAS could respond. 95 people, including 18 soldiers at the barracks, were killed in the raid and 195 injured. On their return journey, the GIV’s encountered Sopwith Pups of the RNAS and one GIV was shot down. The GIV had one major weakness – it had no way of defending an attack from below, as its machine guns could not cover the area under its fuselage. As such, any GIV was vulnerable to attack.
The next raid on the southeast came on June 5th when Sheerness was attacked. Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent had little importance other than it had fortifications built to protect the naval base at Chatham. However, in terms of German propaganda, any attack served a purpose.
However, a major propaganda coup fort he Germans occurred on June 13th when London was attacked during the day. 162 people were killed and 432 injured. This raid especially brought the war home to the people as among the dead were 46 children killed when a bomb demolished a junior school in the East End of London. The raid was the single most deadly aerial raid of World War One and while the casualties were very small when compared to what had occurred on the Western Front, it was the fact that they were civilian casualties that was important and that the war had come to the shores of an island that had previously been protected by the water around it.
The 21 GIV’s returned to their bases without loss. The RFC had put 92 aircraft into the air to combat the bombers but their rate of climb was so slow that they failed to engage them. What the raid did highlight was just how unprepared London and the southeast coast was with regards to an aerial attack.
Buoyed by this success, the Germans launched another attack on London on July 7th. This time Londoners did not stand in the street to watch what was happening. The fact that many took cover meant that this raid accounted for 54 deaths and 190 injured. The RFC was better prepared this time and shot down one GIV and damaged three others for the loss of one British fighter.
Daylight raids continued into August but precautions against them were improved. For this reason, ‘Operation Türkenkreuz’ turned to night-time raids. While this gave protection from fighters and more protection against anti-aircraft fire, it brought its own problems – navigation and landing. At best, navigation was crude and relied on a compass and map. If the weather clouded over as the raid proceeded, it meant that visual navigation using rivers or the coastline as examples, could not be used unless the bombers flew below the cloud line, which in itself made them more vulnerable to ground fire. Successfully landing a large and heavy bomber at night took much skill. The GIV also had a design failing in that its fuel was carried in engine compartments (nacelles). If a GIV crashed on landing, then the fuel would immediately spill onto very hot engines and catch alight. What would seem to be a relatively ‘light’ crash could cause the fuel to spill.
May 19th 1918 witnessed the largest raid of ‘Operation Türkenkreuz’ against London. The new Gotha V bombers carried fuel within its fuselage and had a machine gun built into the bottom of its fuselage so that the area below the aircraft could be covered against an attack. 38 GV’s attacked London but suffered heavy losses – six GV’s were lost to RFC fighters and one GV crashed on landing. With a loss rate nearing 20%, the raids were called off and the GV’s concentrated their efforts on the Western Front.
In total there were 22 raids against English targets during ‘Operation Türkenkreuz’. The Germans lost 61 aircraft and dropped nearly 85,000 kg of bombs. While the damage done could not compare in anyway to what had been done in parts of Belgium and France, the psychological importance of the raids was huge – British civilians could no longer expect to be safe from attack.