Attack in the Third Dimension
But now wheeling swiftly across [the river], like shadows of untimely night, he saw in the middle airs below him five birdlike forms, horrible as carrion-fowl yet greater than eagles, cruel as death. Now they swooped near, venturing almost within bowshot of the walls, now they circled away.
But now the dark swooping shadows were aware of [Gandalf]. One whirled towards him; but it seemed to Pippin that he raised his hand, and from it a shaft of white light stabbed upwards. The Nazgul gave a long wailing cry and swerved away; and with that the four others wavered, and then rising in swift spirals they passed away eastward vanishing into the lowering cloud above, and down on the Pelennor it seemed for a while less dark.
-- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Defence of London, 1917
In August 1917, Arthur Gould Lee, the self-described “young flyer of no fame” in the Royal Flying Corps who recorded his experiences in No Parachute: A Fighter Pilot in World War I, was defending London. Although for a couple years Zeppelins had been bombing England, inflicting a few casualties at a time, the summer 1917 Gotha raids shocked England. In one raid in June, Gothas had dropped bombs on London resulting in hundreds killed and injured.
England (as Japan with the Doolittle Raid in the next war) experienced in its capital city how this new warfare in the third dimension could literally bring the war home. Lieutenant J. R. R. Tolkien, currently back in England convalescing from his trench fever, in his quotes above may or may not have been thinking of his generation’s reaction to Gothas over London. But a hundred years later, Nazgul and white light stabbing upward do sound like Gothas and anti-aircraft fire (and like Heinkels and searchlights one war later).
Government Attempts to Call Aircraft into Existence
The unprepared government reacted to bombers over the undefended capital city with the common politician’s response of decreeing something and assuming reality will adjust itself to the decree. According to Lee, “Lloyd George and his War Cabinet hastily decided to double the size of the R.F.C., a futile gesture when even existing demands for aircraft and engines could not be met.”
Besides, the fighter squadrons in France were busy, trying to prepare an offensive. But like Japan in the next war, however important the fight out there, defending the homeland suddenly became even higher priority when the capital was under aerial attack. As the Japanese in 1942 brought their best troops back to Tokyo, two squadrons were ordered back to defend England in mid-June 1917.
Air Defence Evaporates
In July, Gothas attacked again, while Colorado cowboy ace Frederick Libbywas in London. “The idea of twenty-two big Gothas, in broad daylight, was a shock to everyone.” But, “All RFC fighters were at the front in France.”
They were? What happened to the two squadrons? As Lee explained, the day before, they had “returned to their normal front-line duties. By an oversight the Cabinet were not informed of their move.”
Londoners were not too happy. Lee described the Cabinet as “aghast at the renewed outburst of anger and censure from public, parliament and the national press.” So the raid on Mannheim was dropped, and Lee’s and another squadron were sent to England.
Aerobatics to Impress the Public
Lee had no idea at the time, of the events behind his return to England. He was just happy to be with his wife again. And there wasn’t much to do in the way of fighting, so the squadrons practiced formation flying and got very good at it (by 1917 standards).
One thing the aviators practiced was quick launches. Soon, within two minutes of an alarm klaxon going off, pilots could be in their cockpits, taxiing out and waiting for the signal to actually take off. In the air they practiced turns and dives, close enough (wingtip three feet from the next fuselage) to have shouted conversations during a glide. Echoing a comment by German number two ace Ernst Udet, Lee said the aerobatics were impractical for actual aerial warfare, but “a satisfying demonstration of piloting skill.”
Daytime Bombers Scared Away – For a Few Decades
But there were some military benefits. The pilots developed “immense confidence in each other’s exactness of flying,” and the squadron developed a tactical plan for using three flights to break up a formation of Gothas, then moving in on individual Gothas for the kill. But they didn’t get to use the plan, since for whatever reason, the Gothas stayed to the coast after that, saving further major daytime action for a few decades later in the Battle of Britain. (The Gothas made many more raids at night, and Londoners started sleeping in the Underground, showing the children of that generation how to protect their families in the next generation.)
The military also benefitted from the public relations. “The populace, much impressed by the formation flying, and convinced that the squadron was keeping the Gothas away, were cheerfully tolerant of roaming Pups skimming over their chimney pots and brushing the tops of trees in their gardens.” And the populace continued to enjoy the formation flying after the war, when there were demonstrations of aerobatic flying as in the 1925 poster shown above, leading over the years to the formation of the Red Arrows, Britain’s aerial demonstration team.
But Wait, There’s More
Tune in next week for Part II, the even more important aspect of aviation history that Lee found himself in the middle of.