Christmas Day 1914: The Cuxhaven Raid

On Christmas Day 1914 three Royal Navy seaplane carriers, Engadine, Riviera and Empress launched a total of seven floatplanes to attack the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven, some 25 km north of Bremerhaven. The force had been escorted to striking distance by vessels of “Harwich Force” of light cruisers and destroyers which was responsible for active – and indeed aggressive – patrolling of the Southern North Sea throughout WW1. The aircraft were all of the Short  “Folder” Type though with engines of different power in the 100 – 200 hp range. As the name indicated the 67 ft span wings folded for ease of transport in the large hangars built on the after-ends of their carriers.

One of the Short Folders used in the Christmas day raid


The seaplane carriers were converted Cross-Channel passenger ferries, chosen because their top speeds (in the 20 knot range) allowed them to keep up with the Harwich force’s cruisers. The aircraft could not be launched directly from the ships, but rather were lowered  by crane into the water once their wings had been extended, taking off thereafter on their floats. Recovery followed the same procedure, but in reverse, and it is obvious that for the ships at least the period of greatest vulnerability was during recovery, when it was essential to be stationary.

HMS Engadine at anchor – note Short Folder at stern, ready for dropping


The seven aircraft of the strike-force (engine problems held back two more) each carried a pilot and observer/navigator as well as three 20 lb. bombs. Though puny, the latter had the potential to destroy an airship filled with highly flammable hydrogen – indeed Zeppelin LZ37 was to be destroyed by  Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford VC with such a weapon on May 15th 1915.

 A Short Folder with starboard wings still folded


The Christmas Day attack was however to be bedevilled by low cloud but the Folders nevertheless found the Cuxhaven base, though the sheds in which the Zeppelins were housed were obscured by mist. The aircraft dropped their bombs, though without causing any significant direct damage. The morale effect was however marked – notice being served that German homeland targets could be taken under attack and that resources would have to be diverted from elsewhere to protect them.

Contemporary postcard showing the Royal Navy surface force
Note the famous light cruiser HMS Arethusa as flagship


 Artist’s Impression

Alerted by the attack, German aircraft and Zeppelins set out to find the British surface force involved. Two Friedrichshafen seaplanes, and Zeppelin L7, detected the carrier HMS Empress, which due to boiler problems was lagging astern of the formation, dropping small bombs that failed to hit. German U-Boats stationed in the area were equally unsuccessful. All British vessels returned safely to base.

The British aircraft had been airborne for over three hours and all crews were to survive. Three aircraft managed to return to their carrier and three landed in the sea off the German island of Norderney. The crews of the latter were picked up by the British Submarine E11, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith. (In the following year this commander, and submarine, were to have spectacular success operating against the Turks in the Sea of Marmara, action which earned Nasmith a Victoria Cross). The seventh aircraft was posted as “missing” but the pilot had indeed been picked up by a Dutch trawler and he managed to return to Britain a month later.


 Robert Erskine Childers 

An interesting aspect of the Cuxhaven raid was that a key figure in the planning and navigation required, and who was observer on the lead aircraft, was a 44-year old Volunteer-Reserve Lieutenant, Robert Erskine Childers, better known as the author of the classic thriller “The Riddle of the Sands”. Published in 1903, this novel centres on German efforts to stage an invasion of Britain and it drew heavily on Childers’ experience as a yachtsman off the German North-Sea Coast – the scent of the Cuxhaven Raid. An Irish nationalist, Childers had run guns into Howth, North of Dublin, earlier in 1914, for arming volunteer forces supportive of Home Rule for Ireland, using his yacht Asgard for the purpose. He did however see it as ethically essential to support Britain in its death-struggle with Germany in WW1. Childers continued to serve in the British forces  until the end of the war, but thereafter devoted himself to the Republican cause in the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence. During the 1922-23 Civil War that followed signature of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers supported the Republican faction against the newly-established Free-State government. Captured, and tried on which at was essentially a trumped-up charge, he was to be executed by a Free-State firing squad in November 1922. He characteristically insisted on shaking the hand of each member of the firing party. He also instructed his son, who would later be President of Ireland 1973-74 to seek out and shake hands in reconciliation with each man who had  signed his death warrant. Another Irish President, Eamon de Valera, said of him, “He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest.”
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