16 February 1918
Ernst Brandenburg, who lost a leg in June 1917 in an aeroplane crash, returned to Kagohl 3 in February and resumed command of the squadron. Finding morale low following the regular losses sustained by the crews, particularly in landing accidents, he suspended further raids while he built the squadron back up to full strength. This done, on the night of 16 February, five ‘Giants’ of Rfa 501 set out on their own. Strong winds immediately affected the raid and three abandoned the flight to London to settle for the closer target of Dover. One of them, R.33, had a bad night. With three out of the four engines failing, the crew dropped their bombs in the sea off Deal and limped home on one engine, flying at a height of just 200 metres. The crew of R.25 claimed to have bombed Dover but in fact all 20 bombs (each 50kg) fell in a line at about 10.40pm, roughly from Reach Court farm to Granville Road at St. Margaret’s, north of Dover. The bombs smashed a water main in Granville Road, damaged a convent laundry and a house known as ‘The Bungalow’. They shattered numerous windows and dug craters in fields but caused no injuries. The crew of R.36 also claimed to have dropped two bombs on Dover, but they either dropped with those released by R.25 or they fell in the sea.
The two ‘Giants’ that held on for London, R.12 and R.39, had differing experiences. Both came inland over Essex, headed west and appeared initially to keep close company as the British defences believed there was only one aircraft. R.39, carrying the first 1,000kg bomb over Britain, appears to have evaded the plotters until she appeared over south-west London at about 10.15pm. Her own crew thought they were east of the City of London when they released their single bomb. It struck the north-east wing of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, home of the Chelsea Pensioners, obliterating the building. An officer of the hospital staff died, along with his wife, two of his five children and a niece.
The other London-bound ‘Giant’, R.12, had crossed the Thames and was approaching Woolwich when a section of the balloon apron suddenly loomed up in front of it. One of the defence ideas initiated back in September 1917, ten of these balloon barrages were raised on the eastern approaches to London, described as ‘a wire screen suspended from balloons and intended to form a sort of barrage in which enemy machines navigated at night will be caught’.
Raised to a height of 10,000ft, their more practical purpose was to force enemy raiders to fly at more predictable heights giving the AA guns an increased chance of success. Despite the best efforts of the pilot, the starboard wing of R.12 caught the dangling steel cables, twisting it out of control. After dropping 1,000ft the pilot regained control but the violent manoeuvres shook two 300kg bombs free. They fell in Woolwich at 10.20pm. One exploded in Artillery Place, demolising the home of a greengrocer and his shop at No. 50a killing five people, severely damaging three other homes and shops from 49 to 51, and causing other damage at Nos. 47, 48, 52 and 53. Windows were also broken in Belford Grove and at a school in Rectory Place. Seconds later the other bomb exploded in Grand Depot Road where it killed an Australian soldier, Bombardier Eric Munro, and a nurse who was on holiday. The bomb also caused damage to St. George’s Garrison Church. Relieved to be still flying, the crew of R.12 turned back and jettisoned their remaining eight 50kg bombs. These fell harmlessly just north-east of Shortlands railway station near Bromley, some on a golf course and others on allotments on Farnaby Road.
Both R.12 and R.39 flew out across Kent with 60 aircraft from the RFC hoping to intercept them, but only three made fleeting unsuccessful attacks. The AA guns had a busy night during which they fired 4,519 rounds at the two ‘Giants’ that reached London and at those near Dover, but all the ‘Giants’ safely reached their home base outside Ghent.
Casualties: 12 killed, 6 injured
Damage caused by a 1,000kg bomb at the
Royal Hospital, Chelsea