9. Decades Before Pearl Harbor, the British Launched History’s First Aerial Raid From the Sea
From the earliest days of aviation, navies saw the potential of airplanes and used them for reconnaissance and observation. On Christmas Day, 1914, the British Royal Navy used airplanes offensively for the first time, with aircraft carried by seaplane tenders – ships that support the operation of seaplanes. They carried seaplanes to within range of Cuxhaven, a German city on the North Sea coast near the mouth of the Elbe River that was close to a major German Imperial Navy airship, or Zeppelin, base.
Zeppelins and their potential to bomb London loomed large in British imaginations. Fears were spurred in no small part by pre-World War I apocalyptic fiction such as H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air, in which fleets of German dirigibles bombed cities around the world, and reduced them to rubble. Plans were begun for preemptive raids on Zeppelin facilities to destroy them before they began to bomb Britain. The resultant Cuxhaven Raid was the first time that air and sea power were combined to attack land targets. It was also the first step towards the creation of aircraft carriers and the projection of force inland by naval aviation.
8. A Raid That Inflicted Negligible Damage, But Still Revolutionized Warfare
The Cuxhaven Raid was not the first time that German dirigible facilities had been attacked from the air. There had been prior raids, flown by the Royal Flying Corps – the Royal Air Force’s predecessor – against Zeppelin sheds in Cologne, Friedrichshafen, and Dusseldorf. However, the RFC’s airplanes did not have enough range to reach Cuxhaven. A plan was therefore devised for ferries converted into seaplane tenders, escorted by Royal Navy cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, to carry seaplanes to the vicinity of Cuxhaven.
Nine seaplanes, each armed with three 20-pound bombs, were lowered into the water. Only seven managed to start their engines and take off. Their orders were to reconnoiter the area, and if they spotted Zeppelin sheds, to bomb them. Mist, low clouds, fog, and enemy antiaircraft fire hampered the mission. A number of facilities were identified and attacked, but the 20-pound bombs could not do much damage, and the results were negligible. However, the raid was nonetheless a proof of concept that revolutionized warfare because it demonstrated that targets on land could be attacked by airplanes launched from the sea.
The Cuxhaven Raid demonstrated the potential of sea power wedded to aircraft, but it took decades – and another world war – before that potential was fully realized. It occurred on the night of November 11th – 12th, 1940, when the British Royal Navy launched 21 obsolescent Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustriousagainst Italian warships anchored at Taranto. It was history’s first naval engagement that relied exclusively upon carrier aircraft to attack heavily defended warships and was a transformational moment for the Royal Navy’s Fleet air arm.
For years before the outbreak of WWII, the Royal Navy had mulled plans to attack the Italian fleet in Taranto. It was well-positioned to sortie out and cut British supply lines across the Mediterranean, and so it had to be dealt with in case of hostilities. The best plan, codenamed Operation Judgment, called for an attack by torpedo bombers launched from an aircraft carrier. The warships anchored in Taranto were protected by torpedo nets, surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, and the Italians thought they were immune. As seen below, they were not.
6. A Devastated Fleet, For the Loss of Only Two Airplanes
In the weeks and days that preceded the raid on Taranto, RAF photoreconnaissance confirmed the presence of the Italian fleet and identified the location of various warships, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force prepared. A first wave of twelve Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, were launched from HMSIllustrious at 9 PM, November 11th, 1940. They were followed by a second wave of nine Swordfish 90 minutes later. The first Swordfish to reach Taranto dropped illumination flares, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities while other Swordfish launched torpedoes at the anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched torpedoes.
In less than two hours, the biplanes hit three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of two planes and four crewmen. The Italians lost half their capital ships that night, and the next day, they transferred the warships that had survived the raid to the greater safety of Naples. The attack on Taranto ushered in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. It was a momentous engagement that revolutionized warfare. Other navies took a keen interest in what the British had done at Taranto, and Japanese observers of the Imperial fleet, in particular, paid close attention. US Navy observers did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.
As seen above, the 1940 British attack on Taranto demonstrated that airplanes launched from aircraft carriers could devastate an anchored fleet. It was a lesson that the US Navy, with its fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor and faced with a potential adversary in Japan which possessed aircraft carriers, should have paid attention to. It failed to do so and paid the price for that failure on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack from carriers against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.
Early that morning, Japanese aircraft carriers that had sailed in secrecy and radio silence across the North Pacific, reached launch positions about 200 miles north of Hawaii. From their decks, naval bombers, laden with torpedoes and bombs and escorted by Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters, took off to execute a strike that had been planned for nearly a year. The raid was coordinated with other attacks that day against US possessions in the Philippines, Wake, and Guam, and against the British in Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. The attack on Pearl Harbor sought to cripple America’s Pacific fleet and impede US interference with planned Japanese conquests of American, British, and Dutch territories.
The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, which commenced at 7:48 AM local time, caught the defenders off guard. 353 warplanes, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, and with bombs designed to pierce thick armor, the attackers sank four battleships and damaged another four. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. It was a lopsided slaughter. For the loss of 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, and 64 personnel killed and 1 captured, the Japanese killed more than 2,400 Americans and wounded around 1,200.
In addition to twelve ships beached or sunk, the attackers damaged nine others, destroyed 160 airplanes and damaged 150 more. However, the Japanese ignored important infrastructure. They failed to destroy oil storage facilities, docks, power stations, and other installations whose destruction would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a launchpad for the US war effort in the Pacific. Additionally, there were no US aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so America’s carrier arm remained intact. That arm of the US Navy was destined to play a key role in the frustration of Japanese plans, and in the eventual doom of Japan.
The dreaded Gestapo rounded up many members of the French Resistance in northern France in late 1943 and consigned them to the Amiens Prison. Word made it out that the Germans planned to liquidate their captives, and that they would start off with a mass execution of over 100 Resistance and political prisoners on February 19th, 1944. A precision air raid to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity for a mass jailbreak was requested, and the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho.
To find the target was the easy part of the mission. The Amiens Prison was a conspicuous building with high walls, located in an open area adjacent to the long and straight Albert-Amiens road. The hard part, in the days before smart weapons, was how to carry out the mission without too much collateral damage. How to drop the bombs in order to blast the outer walls and kill many guards, yet not destroy the prison and kill too many of the very prisoners the operation was intended to help.
Operation Jericho’s planners accepted that some or many prisoners would die in the raid. However, it was reasoned that they were slated for execution anyhow, and the risk of death in a breakout attempt was better odds than the certainty of execution. So with that grim logic, both Allied authorities in London and the French Resistance signed off on the attack. Those responsible for the mission determined that the plane most suitable for such precision work was the de Havilland Mosquito.
The raid was pushed back repeatedly because of poor weather, until finally on February 18th, 1944, just one day before the scheduled mass executions, the decision was made that it had to be now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up over the English Channel with Typhoon fighters that were to provide them a protective escort. The attackers flew low and took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert to the northeast of Amiens. They then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road to approach the prison from that direction.
1. A Tactical Success, But a Controversial Mission
The plan was for the first Mosquitoes to bomb and breach the Amiens Prison’s outer walls. They would be followed by other Mosquitoes, which would bomb the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many German guards as possible as they sat down for their midday meal. The raiders arrived at noon, armed with 500-pound bombs with delayed fuses to allow the Mosquitoes to fly out of the blast zone before their munitions went off. They successfully breached the outer walls, then the guardhouse was struck and destroyed. Many guards were killed, along with collateral damage to prisoners in the vicinity. Once prisoners were observed pouring out of the breached walls, the raiders departed and flew back home.
Operation Jericho was a tactical success, but the results were mixed. The bombing was pinpoint accurate by the standards of the day. The walls were successfully breached, which allowed the prisoners an opportunity for a jailbreak. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two Typhoons, 50 Germans were killed. However, 107 of the 717 prisoners were also killed. 258 prisoners did manage to escape, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance denied that they had ever requested that the prison be bombed. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading