From almost the very start of the Great War, the British were bedeviled by Zeppelin raids. The airships could fly far higher and faster than many of the airplanes sent to oppose them. They also raided by night, and in pre-radar days were hard to find and intercept.
Naturally, it occurred to British authorities to strike them in their lairs, as it were, in the gigantic Zeppelin sheds on German airfields. This led to a raid in July 1918 that was every bit as daring as the Doolittle Raid of 1942, but is much less well known. Like Doolittle’s raid, the naval aviation raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, Germany (modern Tonder, Denmark) were consequential, daring, hazardous, and dependent on technology strained to the uttermost. Like Doolittle’s raid, not everyone came home.
Concept of the Operation
Having agreed on the desirability of an attack on the Zeppelins at rest, the British intended to use Britain’s naval superiority to mount a naval air strike against them. This would not be the first naval air raid in history, as the RN had attacked Cuxhaven with seaplanes as early as Christmas, 1914; but it was the first attack on any target launched from an aircraft carrier.
It would call for pilots with technical mastery of the fiddly high-tech machines, and more than the average share of intrepidity. At the time, HMS Furious was a one-way aircraft carrier. What goes up, must come down, but not here. With the flight deck located forward of the bridge and superstructure, aircraft could launch, but not recover. The drill was to return to the ship and ditch in the sea, whereupon the Navy would do their best to pluck the pilot from the waves, and hook his plane up to a winch, whereupon it would be hauled out, washed thoroughly with fresh water, and repaired, if possible.
With the launch-and-splashdown approach successful, experiments were undertaken in landing planes aboard. Arresting gear were developed, and a second flight deck was built after of the superstructure, intended for aircraft recovery. A sort of pathway was provided for the recovered planes to be manhandled around Furious’s funnel, bridge and masts to the take-off deck forward. It looked like, and was, a temporary stopgap.
It was also a miserable failure. While Furious did host the first successful carrier landing on a moving ship (Ely’s American experiments before the war had been on a stationary “carrier”), the turbulence behind the superstructure made landing perilous. Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning, DSC., RNAS, successfully landed a Sopwith Pup (a sweeter-handling antecedent to the Camel) on the deck, but perished when he was blown overside trying to repeat the feat. Further experiments showed that, even with selected pilots, getting aboard without losing the plane was no better than a fifty-fifty proposition. Since the deliberate ditchings usually allowed the safe recovery of the pilot, and often of the plane, also, the nascent carrier strike wing returned to that hairy procedure.
The raid’s seven Camels await their orders.
The mission required the pilots to launch from the very short foredeck of Furious, fly across open water to the coast, navigate to the location of the Zeppelin sheds, and navigate back to the position the fleet had gotten to in the interim. The pilots were instructed to give priority to attacking any Zeppelins encountered, and second priority to the sheds; if they needed to expend their return-to-ship fuel reserve to fight the Zeppelins, or defending aircraft, so be it; they were to make the best landing they could in enemy territory rather than fly out to sea and be lost for want of fuel.
Poor, double-exposed picture of the planes enroute.
The implication, of course, was that it was a one-way mission. It wasn’t officially; the fleet stood by to recover the planes and pilots if they did ever come back. Each pilot knew where the plane-guard destroyers would be, and if he made it back to the fleet, his job was to ditch just off the ship’s nose — far enough to avoid being run over, close enough that the ship would arrive in time to hook onto the plane before Poseidon staked his claim to the machine, and, perhaps, its crewman. But even though it wasn’t officially a one-way trip, everything had to go right at every point for the pilots to return to their wardroom in the carrier. The odds stacked up against it.
The Weapon: Sopwith Camel
Furious embarked two types of airplanes in 1918: Sopwith 1½ Strutters as reconnaissance and bombing planes, and the new Sopwith Camel fighters. The 1½ Strutters were the logical choice for a bombing raid, but the admirals didn’t think they wanted to expend any of them — in the short time they’d had Furious with the fleet, they’d gotten hooked on the situational awareness that eyes-on aerial reconnaissance could bring them. So it was the Camels or nothing.
Model Sopwith Camel N6605. This plane and its pilot Lt. NE Williams landed in neutral Denmark and were interned till war’s end. Note the bombs. From a modeler’s page on his 1/48 scale Sopwith projects.
As a bombing plane, the Camel was decidedly limited. It could carry a bombload of 100 lbs — 2 each 50 lb Cooper bombs. In addition it had two machine guns — usually two synchronized belt-fed Vickers guns, improved Maxims, but sometimes a Vickers and a pan-fed Lewis firing from outside the propeller arc, or even just one Vickers (the photos of the raid aircraft seem to show all three armament types. The Camel was designed for two Vickerses, but there was a Vickers shortage at the time). The synchronized guns used a Constantinesco gear train to ensure they would never strike a propeller blade.
Choosing the Camels, and drawing a radius equivalent to half a Camel’s range from all the points where Furious might come close inshore, greatly simplified target selection: while the Navy knew of quite a few Zeppelin sheds, there was exactly one facility in reach of the Camels: Tondern, in Schleswig province of Germany itself (which would be lost to Denmark in the Treaty of Versailles).
Launching the Camels from the decks of Furious at sea was always risky. And recovering the machines and men from the cold waters of the North Sea and English Channel was more so. Moreover, to ensure an early-morning attack, the planes had to launch before first light (several stirring paintings of the launch take artistic license by showing them during the day). WWI aviation was rudimentary, although it was the high-tech of the day. Naval aircraft carrier operations were far out ahead of the leading edge of 1918 technology. The operation was carefully planned to give the Camel pilots their best chance of surviving an attack on the enemy hornet’s nest, and returning to their ship, but the pilots had to be fearful that they were on a one-way mission.
Tobias, Toni and Toska, showing one Zeppelin, before the raid. It embiggens.
Tondern hosted three Zeppelin sheds, gigantic hangars that could accommodate the gigantic airships. The Germans numbered their Zeppelins, but named the sheds: Toska was 730 feet long and 220 feet high, and two smaller sheds (603 feet long) were called Toni and Tobias. The biggest Zeps would only fit in the big shed, but it could hold two of them, side by side, and on the day of the attack, it did: LZ 54 and LZ 60.
A Zeppelin relied on speed and altitude for safety in the sky; it could climb higher than most British fighters. But on the ground, the Zeppelins and their sheds were fat, juicy targets, and the Imperial Navy that operated them surrounded them with rings of defenses: fighter squadrons, whose headquarters could be reached by telegraph; novel Krupp anti-aircraft cannon; numerous machine-gun nests. Surprise could thin the defenses, but a fully alerted defense would be a tough nut to crack.
Some of the Camels had 2x Vickers, some had 1x Vickers and 1x Lewis. This sunny picture is fanciful; the launch was at 0300 hours!
On 19 July 1918, hours before dawn, seven Camels rose unsteadily from the deck of Furious, and headed for Tondern. One of them dropped one of its wheels into the sea as it climbed out; its pilot was Walter A “Toby” Yeulett. Another soon turned back and made its water landing in front of what we’d now call a plane-guard destroyer, leaving 6 Camels with a total of 600 pounds of bombs on the mission.
(Illustrating the difficulty of plane-and-pilot recovery, the plane-guard ship ran over the plane, destroying it. The pilot was recovered safely).
They navigated by magnetic compass, and map pilotage and elapsed time, because that is what they had, and flew a course as simplified as possible to ensure returning to the fleet. Essentially they flew due east until making landfall, and then turned south along the coast to Tondern.
At the target, they were met by anti-aircraft gun and machine-gun fire, but it does not appear to have had an effect. The planes bombed. Most of them chose the much larger Toska as a target, and while the raid was still ongoing, black smoke boiled out of a large hole in the roof of Toska and rose over 10,000 feet in the air. The pilots reported that they had destroyed the hangar and damaged the other two.
Accounts of the raid from the British and German side are remarkably congruent. One Zeppelin captain’s account took time to note his admiration for the courage of the attackers, even as he feared for the fate of his ship, LZ 54.
The Results of the Raid
They had overstated their results, as the hangar damage was repairable. The flames they saw, though, were the funeral pyres of LZ 54 and LZ 60, of which only charred skeletons remained. They burned inside Toska without causing the hangar to burn itself; it was rebuildable. The loss of life is not known, but was apparently small. But one thing was clear: Tondern was finished as a Zeppelin launch site. Even though the sheds could be restored, the feeling of security could not be. From this point in time on, the Zeppelins would launch their attacks from deeper inside Germany.
Three airplanes alone returned to ditch in the vicinity of Furious, counting the mission-abort plane. Their pilots were recovered from the cold North Sea, and their pride in success of the raid must have been highly tempered by the absence of four of their mates. Three of the non-returned pilots, though, were safe, having landed in nominally neutral Denmark. The fourth, Lieutenant W.A. “Toby” Yeulett, did not return. His body was recovered from the sea; he and his plane washed up on the shore in separate places. He was buried with honors, and his grave is maintained to this day. The only son of a Walton-on-Thames couple, Yeulett was 19 years old at the time of his death. He was the only fatality on the British side.
Two of the other pilots interned by the Danes escaped back to Britain; after that, the third was held until war’s end.
At the time, the existence of aircraft carriers was closely held, and official reports of Yeulett’s passing say that he was flying a “seaplane.” As did an official report which came to be printed in the New York Times, among other papers. Seaplane? Well, in a manner of speaking. But this was probably a cover story for the new concept of an aircraft carrier. The Germans knew they’d been attacked by landplanes; indeed, the Zeppelin skipper mentioned above noted Yeulett’s one-wheeled plane in the attack.
Yeulett’s family has preserved his memory, and there’s an excellent website with information about him and the raid (see Sources below).
The raid convinced the British that aircraft carriers had almost unlimited potential as power-projection tools. Britain’s Asian ally, Japan, also took notice. The Tondern Raid is little-remembered today, but as an example of a technologically-enabled special operation, it deserves to be studied in both its naval aviation and special operations aspects.
Casey, William. Walter “Toby” Yeulett DFC: The Raid on Tondern 1918. This extremely good and thorough website is well maintained by a great-nephew of Yeulett. Retrieved from: http://www.tondernraid.com
The Imperial War Museum. British Ships of the First World War. n.d., Retrieved from: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/listing/object-205013089
Tillman, Barrett. Forging the Weapon. Naval History Magazine. October 2010, Vol. 4 No. 5. Retrieved from: http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2010-10/forging-weapon
Whitehouse, Arch. The Zeppelin Fighters. New York: Doubleday, 1966. This is where we first read the story of the raid. It’s an excellent book which tells the story of the development and combat employment of the Zeppelins, and of the men who went to war against them. It is a creature of its period, in that it lacks index and footnotes, but it’s a stirring read (Whitehouse was a very prolific writer of WWI history and other early aviation stories).