The Gotha in the Thames Estuary

Gotha IV 656/16

Today’s record which commemorates a loss on 12 August 1917 came to the Historic England’s national marine database in a roundabout way, when a piece of personal research took a maritime turn and I ended up discovering the story of an aircraft lost in the sea all those years ago.

Background: Dipping briefly into the personal to provide some background, inspired by the national commemorations of the First World War (including Historic England’s commemorative research and this blog’s own Diary of the First World War) I undertook a research project on my family in the Great War, and not a moment too soon, because my principal oral history source and the last living link to the Great War generation has since passed away.

All the other centenary commemorative activities undertaken by many organisations, individuals and historians, have created a rich resource and a considerable legacy of their own, in a freely available online format. They are hugely helpful to anyone researching the events and locations of the Great War today – among them the Red Cross, the Imperial War Museum, and First World War aviation and air accident history experts, particularly the work of Ian Castle of Zeppelin Raids, Gothas and Giants: Britain’s First Blitz, 1914-18.

The story and the challenge: My great-aunt from Southend-on-Sea told the story that as a young woman she had seen British aircraft in combat with Gothas over the Thames Estuary during the First World War, with a dogfight as part of the event. (1) I wanted to see if I could identify the particular event concerned from just those few words gleaned at second-hand.

British aircraft in foreground with Allied roundels on upper wings pursued by a German aircraft with the Iron Cross visible on its left upper wing, the right on fire. Other aircraft are visible in the background amid white clouds and black smoke.
An Aerial Fight, Louis Weirter, 1918. This Imperial War Museum commission shows a dogfight between British and German biplanes. © IWM Art. IWM ART 654. Original source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/37417

So what happened during that dogfight? There were several aerial incidents during the First World War over the Thames Estuary, but most could be eliminated on the following grounds:

(a) they were too early, since the Gotha saw service only from 1916 onwards;
(b) they involved aircraft other than Gothas, such as Zeppelins;
(c) they took place at night, when she is less likely to have seen or watched the aircraft;
(d) they were bombing raids either unopposed or opposed only by ground artillery; or
(e) they were events in which German aircraft were pursued by British craft without engagement.

The most likely incident, therefore, is one that took place in the early evening of a summer Sunday on 12 August 1917, when the resort of Southend-on-Sea was still full of day-trippers. I suspect it is likely that perhaps my great-aunt, at the age of 18, was out on a Sunday stroll on the promenade looking out over the sea, perhaps even out with her fiancé, who was later killed in action, and whose name, full of grief, she took to the grave with her.

As usual, accounts of incidents during the war vary tremendously, because of differing individual perspectives, the ‘fog of war’, ensuing propaganda claims and counter-claims by each side, and confusion with other similar incidents in the same action all being factors in sometimes making it difficult to obtain a clear and objective account of events.

It all happened very fast, too, which meant it must have passed in a blur for the combatants, and for historians a century later a very difficult task to decipher.

At 5.20 pm British aircraft scrambled from their bases on either side of the Thames Estuary to intercept German aircraft off the Thames. At 5.30 pm Gotha bombers arrived off Southend from their base at Gontrode, Belgium, with the Thames an easy flight path to follow right to the heart of the capital, where they intended to discharge their bombs.

One Gotha broke away from the eastbound trajectory along the Thames to attack Margate around 5.40 pm but was subjected to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and was then chased by RNAS pilots virtually all the way back to Zeebrugge. (2)

The other aircraft carried on at first towards London, with a couple of bombs being dropped on Rochford airfield (where Southend Airport now is) around 5.50 pm, and reaching as far east as Canvey Island, before turning back against the increasing headwind from the south-west and heading on a roughly ENE course, dropping bombs on a path between Leigh-on-Sea, Southend, Bournes Green and Little Wakering, pursued by 61 Squadron of Rochford.

This phase of the action was over land, but close enough to the coast to be visible to day-trippers and cause them to abandon their socks and shoes on the beach. (3) The death toll from bombs in Southend itself was something like 25-30 persons. (4) 61 Squadron then pursued the Gothas out to sea, and at this point pilots from RNAS Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, on the opposite side of the Thames, also rose up to engage eight Gothas as they turned back east.

In the meantime Flight Lt Harold Spencer Kerby, who had joined the pursuit of the lone Gotha off Margate, on the north-eastern coast of Kent, peeled away north-westwards in his Sopwith Pup following the sight of ‘anti-aircraft fire bursting in the direction of Southend’ to join four other ‘British machines’ against the eight Gothas, so this was approximately 6pm or so. (5)

Historic B&W photo of man in biplane, front propeller to left, on a hard-standing, trees and shrubs on the horizon visible just below the lower wing.

Sopwith Pup single-seat fighter biplane. Copyright: © IWM. 67558 Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205129173

According to eyewitness Kurt Delang of Kasta 15: ‘One single-seater fighter followed us on our course along the east coast of England. This Englishman attacked our Gotha[s] constantly from above and very soon caused heavy damage to our aircraft.’ (6) In other words, Kerby was straightaway on the attack. The Gothas at this point were certainly tracking the coastline from the landward, but Little Wakering was their last landside point and after that they moved out to sea from the Essex coast.

I suspect that this point of the incident is what my great-aunt witnessed from Southend-on-Sea, as she would have been able to see Kerby in his Sopwith Pup making for the anti-aircraft guns at Shoeburyness which came into play as the Gothas moved out to sea, and going on the attack as he crossed their paths. (Kerby described their course as north-easterly, but the trajectory of the bomb drops across the area suggest an ENE course.) (7)

Kerby made a fruitless diving attack about ’30 miles to seaward’ then climbed and singled out ‘one Gotha 4,000 [ft] below the formation, but still flying with it. I attacked from the front and drove him down into the sea, where I observed him turn over. One of the occupants I saw hanging on the tail of the Gotha.’ (8)

The aircraft in the sea was Gotha IV 656/16 of Kasta 16, Kagohl III. (9) Unteroffizier Kurt Delang of Kasta 15 described the same incident in such a way as to suggest it refers to the same incident, albeit with a different outcome: ‘We were already down to 500 metres above the water when the Englishman again attacked. Then he flew beneath us for a long time . . . and pulled up straight in order to gain altitude and strike again from above.’ Delang’s account then diverges considerably from Kerby’s: ‘When the British single-seater had attained only a modest speed, he was right in the sights of our machine guns. Flames burst out . . . he plunged into the North Sea.’ (10)

Accounts then become somewhat more muddled with various claims from all parties as to the place of loss. Other German sources (11) stated that the crew of Delang’s aircraft, had ‘shot down a British single-seater near Southend,’ with two other British losses also claimed on this raid, of a triplane near Margate and a two-seater near Southend.

However, there are no records of Kerby or any other British pilots being shot down that day in home waters, and the only aircraft losses on that day on both sides were on the Western Front, including Delang’s Gotha, which crash-landed just short of its home base at Gontrode. What they reported seems to have been the loss of one of their own. (12)

Historic black & white photograph of light-coloured biplane with Iron Cross markings on fuselage and tail, with three men standing beside the tail.
Gotha G IV RG + 406/16 of Kagohl III in December 1916. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gotha_G_IV_2.jpg

How could this happen? It was difficult to mistake the two aircraft, with the much larger three-man Gotha bomber having a distinctive pattern of vertical struts arranged in a 2-2-3 pattern between each pair of wings, compared to the Sopwith Pup with its single set of two struts on either side, and each side had recognition markings. As the painting at the top of the article shows, however, smoke and cloud could obscure the view and rapid decisions taken in an emergency could lead to the ‘fog of war’ descending. They fired, but did they miss Kerby and strike one of their own instead as the aircraft danced their fatal dance in the sky?

The confirmation of air combat results is both very specific and very vague. It certainly name-checks the principal theatres of action at Southend and Margate and seems to suggest a wide spread of British aircraft, a one-seater, a two-seater and a triplane, but does not name the models downed, and in any case the main British production triplane, the Sopwith Triplane, saw service overseas, not in home defence. This may therefore be an example of a claim demonstrating some results from what was otherwise an abortive mission which did not achieve its target.

So where did this take place? Delang reported Kerby’s first dive as ‘along the east coast of England’, suggesting that land was in sight at that point, i.e. the Essex coastline, although Kerby suggests it was further out to sea. British sources attribute the loss of Gotha IV 656/16 to ‘some way off Southend’, but this is consistent with Delang on the ‘British’ loss ‘near Southend’. Other German sources suggest that 656/16 was lost off Dover, but not in combat.

The incident certainly took place some distance offshore because Kerby circled the capsized Gotha before ‘returning to England’, and threw a lifebelt to the crew member who had got out onto the tail, which certainly suggests he had a good look at the aircraft and was able to identify it, as shown by the illustration immediately below.

Men in military uniform examining the damaged tail of a downed aircraft, with IV and an Iron Cross legible on the side.
Portuguese and British troops inspecting the tail of a German Gotha G.IV heavy bomber, brought down in the Portuguese sector, France. Copyright: © IWM Q 64432) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205311688

Kerby then attempted to direct some destroyers bound for Dunkirk to assist the stricken aircraft, but his signals were ignored, although these nameless destroyers provide a further clue.

Those destroyers help point us in the direction of where the aircraft came down. The aircraft pursuit took a roughly ENE course along the Essex coast, as revealed by the bomb drops, and the respective pilots’ accounts, then out to sea. Other than the abortive engagement off Margate, no action took place over the Kent coast, so Dover appears too far south for Kerby’s destruction of the Gotha, and Delang’s account that an aircraft had been shot down into the North Sea also suggests a locale further north than Kent. The German source that claimed 656/16 was lost ‘off Dover’ would naturally have had less knowledge of the English coast than the British pilots, so we can suggest that the destroyers Kerby saw are unlikely to be those of the Dover patrol.

Instead, the destroyers he attempted to signal are more likely to have been those of the Harwich patrol, where the 10th Destroyer Flotilla was part of the Harwich force. These destroyers were thus steaming on a south-easterly course and would have been using the swept War Channels safe, as far as possible, from mines, and keeping well clear of the notorious sandbanks at the entrance to the Thames Estuary.

Additionally, for the German aircraft, an easterly course from Essex was unsustainable for their return flight to Gontrode in Belgium with fuel supplies running low, especially after taking evasive action, so at some point the Gothas would also have had to start to bear on a south-easterly course, for which the Dover area would also have been too far south. It thus seems more likely that 656/16 was downed before the formation began to turn their course for home.

We can see that the British aircraft were quite capable of pursuing the Gothas virtually all the way back to Belgium, and, as we have seen, others in this incident were certainly followed 40 to 50 miles out to sea. This suggests that Kerby’s estimate of action some 30 miles offshore is probably correct, with the final downing of his quarry perhaps a little further east and intersecting with the destroyers he witnessed from Harwich making for Dunkirk.

The most likely area fitting the criteria of an easterly to north-easterly course some 30 to 40 miles out to sea from the populated areas of the Essex Thameside coast, and intersecting with the Harwich-Dunkirk route taken by the destroyers, is an area just off the south-western tip of the present-day London Array Wind Farm. Although 30 miles sounds a long way offshore from Essex, this area in fact lies within the UK limit of territorial waters (12 miles) given its greater proximity to the Kent coastline.

Outcome: I was not at all hopeful that I would even be able to identify the incident my great-aunt witnessed. Years of professional historical research have taught me that sometimes the unexpected happens and a trail that seems at first to be unpromising proves to be a fascinating piece of research (and vice versa). Even so, I was astonished that by retracing the flight paths of Flight Lieutenant Harold Spencer Kerby and Unteroffizier Kurt Delang, I ended up with a record of an aircraft lost to the sea, and one which was new to the Historic England national marine database.

Footnotes:

(1) As told by the author’s great-aunt (1898-1994) to her father (1922-2020), and preserved in an unpublished family history document, Serena Cant 2018

(2) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1; http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

(3) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1; http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

(4) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1; http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

(5) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1

(6) Kasta = German, short for Kampfstaffel (Squadron);  http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(7) http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(8) The Globe, 13 August 1917, No.38,093, p1, Harold Spencer Kerby’s own words, derived from official sources and repr. in Franks, N. 2012 Sopwith Pup Aces of World War I (London: Bloomsbury Publishing); http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(9) Kampfstaffel (Squadron) 16 of Kampfgeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung (German Army High Command Bomber Squadron) 3, also known as the England-Geschwader/Englandgeflieger, or English Squadron: http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(10) http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(11) Also quoted in http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/Kagohl3-diary.html

(12) https://aviation-safety.net/ http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/12-aug-1917/4593992454

2 thoughts on “The Gotha in the Thames Estuary

  1. Hi, Serena,

    For some reason I just read this post about your Great Aunt’s Gotha. What an interesting story and an amazing piece of research!

    Steve

  2. Many thanks, Steve, for your kind comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It has been a long weekend here, UK Summer Bank Holiday, otherwise I would have replied earlier!

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