207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
WORLD WAR I
1917 HP O/100s
At the end of March 1917, a further change of organisation was made and the Squadron found itself at Coudekerque, under Squadron Commander John K W Allsop, and in possession of half a flight of the new Handley Page O/100s which were assembling there. By the end of the first week in April, five Handley Pages had been delivered bringing the Squadron strength to 5 Handley Pages and 7 Short Bombers.
The Handley Pages were used for day bombing at first and throughout April and early May 1917, they carried out bombing patrols against the enemy destroyer flotillas which were attacking coastal shipping and bombarding Ramsgate, Manston and Dover. On 23 April, a typical attack was made by a patrol of three Handley Pages, led by Flight Sub-Lieutenant T S S Hood. Sighting five destroyers off Blankenberghe, they attacked with 65 pound bombs and obtained a direct hit on one vessel which immediately listed heavily to port and appeared to be severely damaged. The other destroyers dispersed immediately, although they later returned to help the crippled ship.
On 26th April one of the Handley Page quartet, 0/100 3115 piloted by Flight Sub-Lieutenant T S S Hood with his crew Gunlayers R H Watson, W C Dansey and F C Kirby, was then engaged by a German single-seat floatplane fighter (a Rumpler 6BI, Nr 1037) piloted by Vizefeldwebel Müller. The German's fire ruptured 3115's petrol tanks. Hood attempted to fly his crippled aircraft towards land at Nieuport, but was eventually forced to ditch in the sea nearly two miles offshore, where the Handley Page immediately came under heavy fire from enemy shore batteries. Two French FBA flying boats from a nearby seaplane station quickly took off and, braving the shellfire, landed alongside the sinking bomber. One FBA, piloted by QM François Cortigny, took on board the wounded Kirby and then flew him to safety, but the other FBA was shot into the sea as it tried to take off again (it is presumed with the other HP survivors) and was later reported as being towed into Ostend by a German destroyer. The three 'missing' HP crew members were later 'presumed killed'.
The Handley Page O/100 was far superior, both in size and performance, to anything that No.7 Squadron, or indeed any other squadron, had so far flown. Flown by a crew of three - pilot, observer and gunner - it was fitted with two Rolls Royce 250 horsepower engines and carried a normal bomb load of 14x112 pound bombs. It was later to carry the first 1650 pound bomb.
At about this time, German seaplane units at Ostend and Zeebrugge began to increase their attacks on Great Britain and British naval forces operating in the Straits of Dover and off the Belgian coast. This led to a strong day and night counter-offensive by the RNAS from the Dunkirk area. No.7 Squadron carried out a series of night attacks against Ostend during April and May 1917.
On the night of 3 May 1917, four of the Squadron's Short bombers carried out a particularly successful attack on the German seaplane base at Ostend. Sixteen 112 pound, eight 100 pound and sixteen 65 pound bombs were dropped, all bursting on or near their targets. The high morale and efficiency of the Squadron were clearly seen when the first two aircraft to return from the raid, immediately bombed-up and went back for a second and equally successful attack.
Soon after this, it was decided to restrict Handley Pages to night bombing, a role for which they proved to be eminently suitable. Their first night attack was against Zeebrugge on 9 May. The date was chosen because it was a moonlit night. As the pilots gained night flying experience, the need for moonlight diminished and soon they were operating nearly every night, only the most adverse weather conditions keeping them grounded.
By the end of May, the Squadron had intensified its operations to include attacks on German bomber bases in addition to its existing commitments. From Coudekerque the Handley Pages could easily reach any enemy-occupied port in Belgium and even more distant objectives within Germany such as Duren, near Cologne. Throughout June 1917 the HPs operated almost nightly, attacking key targets at Bruges, Ostend, Zeebrugge and, especially, German bomber and seaplane bases as a counter-measure against the German bombing of London and South East England, which began at the end of May.
On the night of 3 June 1917, the Squadron made one of its most concerted efforts yet by putting up 14 aircraft, 10 Handley Pages and 4 Shorts, to attack the German airfield St Denis Westrem and the secondary target, Zeebrugge. Nine aircraft successfully attacked the primary target and two the secondary. The remaining three aircraft, however, were forced to turn back with engine trouble.
On 5 June 1917 an HP O/100 of 7(N) Sqn piloted by Sqn Cdr J Babington and carrying HM King Albert of Belgium landed at Dunkirk.
July 1917 - The HP aircrew of No.7(N) Sqn at this time included some experienced ex-No.3 Wing RNAS personnel and several of the pilots were later to command HP squadrons in 1918. A fairly typical operations order of this period was that detailed for a raid on Bruges docks on 2/3 July, 1917:
Flt Lt C H Darley/GLs Young & Canning
FSL J E Scott/LMs Bager & McDonald
FSL B A S. Millson/AMs George & Parker
Flt Cdr H G Brackley/LMs Woolley & Langstone
Flt Lt E B Waller/LMs Smith & Ayre
Flt Lt J F Jones/FSL P Bewsher/Sgt D E Wade
Flt Lt W E Gardner/LMs Medgett & Jones
FSL Johnson/AMs Symonds & Boshier
These eight HPs dropped a total of 84x 112lb bombs and returned without casualties.
On the following night nine HPs - 1466, 3119, 3121, 3122, 3126, 3127, 3128, 3130 and 3131 - attacked German air bases at Houttave, Ghistelles and Ostend, dropping a total of 72x112lb and 21x65lb bombs on these, while one HP dropped its ten 112lb bombs on a train near Bruges.
At this period the 112lb RL bomb - its actual high-explosive content being a mere 27lb of Amatol 80/20 - was the heaviest bomb available to the Handley Page crews, and though designed to accommodate up to 16 such bombs, the O/100s of No.7(N) Sqn seldom carried full-capacity bomb loads as yet.
Throughout July 1917 weather conditions at night continued to favour the crews, enabling them to operate on most nights and in reasonable strength. With accumulating experience the ground maintenance crew could usually produce ten or eleven serviceable machines for any night raid, while the majority of the pilots were now sufficiently familiar with handling the O/100s to keep flying accidents to a minimum.
This healthy situation in the context of operationally fit HPs, plus the continuing receipt of fresh machines from England at Coudekerque, led to the creation of a second Handley Page unit, No.7A Sqn, RNAS, which was formed officially at Coudekerque on 23 July, equipped with a nucleus of eight HP machines hived off from No.7(N) Sqn and commanded by Sqn Cdr Richard C M Pink (later Air Commodore Pink, CBE who died on 7 March, 1932, at RAF Halton).
The new squadron's pilots were, in the main, fresh from training in England and in need of familiarization with operational conditions in France before being committed to night raiding - indeed, several pilots had yet to fly a Handley Page at night - and the unit commander, Richard Pink, instigated a programme of training the new men in August before he would report his squadron ready to undertake any operation, although part of that 'training' was allowing certain pilots and officer observers to fly with No.7(N) Sqn's HP crews on their sorties occasionally during the month.
Thus until the end of August No.7(N) Sqn continued its lone raiding, and its prime targets were the various German airfields at Gontrode, St Denis Westrem, Varssenhaere, Ghistelles, Aertrycke and Houttave, with almost equal attention being given to the docks at Ostend, Bruges, Zeebrugge and Middickerke. Secondary objectives included many vital railway stations and junctions and, apart from their normal loads of 65lb and 112lb bombs carried, one or two 0/100s were fitted semiexperimentally with a 6lb Davis shell gun in modified nose cockpits.
The Davis Gun
This was a form of recoilless weapon, invented by Cdr Cleland Davis of the US Navy. When fired, the shell propulsion from the muzzle was intended to be 'compensated' by a discharge of lead shot from the rear of the gun's barrel (in essence the same principle as the more familiar 'Bazooka' anti-tank weapon of World War II). Ordered for trials by the British Admiralty's Air Department in early 1915, the Davis gun was extensively tested over the following two years and in July 1917 was fitted experimentally to several Handley Page 0/100s at Manston. In the following months Davis guns were sent to the HP units at Coudekerque.
Fitting a Davis gun in the HP 0/100 required modification to the standard front gunner's nose cockpit by raising its profile - a distinctive recognition feature of any HP so modified - and the first known operational use of this weapon by a Coudekerque Handley Page was against railway sidings at Zarren on the night of 11/12 July, 1917, when eight rounds were fired. The particular aircraft so fitted would seem to have been HP1462 of No.7(N) Sqn, and the gun was used at least twice more, ten rounds being fired at some motor transport convoys near Lichtervelde on 15/16 July and ten rounds against a railway junction at Thourout on 9/10 August.
No further operational use of the Davis gun by the Couderkerque HP units is apparently recorded, and this may have resulted from the fact that the rear discharge of lead shot could cause damage to the aircraft's top wing when the gun was fired downwards at any ground target (apart from being a menace to anything - or anyone - in line with the rear of the gun barrel). Moreover, a 6lb Davis gun weighed just over 200lb with its special mounting, with a length of 10ft, apart from the weight of the 12lb 4oz cartridges carried; a cumbersome, heavy device not particularly welcomed by HP crews.
German ground defences of the period were usually fierce - including batteries of searchlights, machine guns and rockets - against relatively low-flying HPs - some crews often bombing from as low as 200ft in their desire for accuracy and then returning even lower to give the two gunlayers in each machine an opportunity for close strafing of anything resembling a good target.
A further form of opposition now beginning to appear came from German 'nightfighters', as exemplified in a report by HP crews returned from bombing airfields at Gontrode, St Denis Westrem and Ghistelles on the night of 6/7 July, which stated '...heavily attacked by large formations but had dropped bombs and returned safely though much shot about.' This prospect of meeting aerial opponents meant that the gunlayers now needed to keep a constant look-out on both outward and return flights, and to reserve some ammunition for any such occasion.
August 1917 saw No.7(N) Sqn escalating its nightly forays, attacking enemy airfields, railway centres and sidings - these latter in direct support of Allied land offensives in the Ypres sector - with several notable individual operations.
One such was on the night of 16/17 August, when 14 Handley Pages in all set out to raid the Thourout rail centre and a nearby ammunition dump, using in part a recently introduced heavier 250lb type of bomb. Direct hits on the railway complex produced several large fires, while the ammunition dump exploded in a series of violent eruptions and was still burning fiercely one and a half hours later. Two nights later nine HPs - 3119, 3122, 3125, 3129, 3132, 3133, 3134 and 3137 - chose rail targets at Thourout and St Pierre, Ghent and Bruges docks, dropping overall 108 x 112lb, four 250lb and nine 65lb bombs to good effect.
Throughout this very active month German defence opposition remained heavy, yet No.7(N) Sqn lost only one aircraft on actual operations during August. On the night of 25/26 August seven HPs set of to attack St Denis Westrem aerodrome, dropping 68 x 112lb, four 250lb and nine 65lb bombs, but HP 3137, crewed by FSL H H Booth/GLs S A Canning/P M Yeatman, was brought down.
On the last night of August No.7A Sqn made its first sorties, combining with HPs from 7(N) in bombing Ghistelles airfield, and over the coming weeks in September continued to join forces with 7(N) on all night raids.
September 1917 proved to be an equally active month for the Coudekerque HPs and a month free of actual losses to direct enemy action, with rail and airfield targets primary objectives in the continuing need to offer direct support to the Allied ground forces. Towards the end of the month, however, the oncoming winter was heralded by worsening weather conditions, creating problems for the HP crews in normal navigation and actual location of intended targets.
One night raid planned for 12/13 September saw eight HPs loaded and prepared for attacks on Ghistelles airfield, Thourout railway station and Bruges docks. The first three machines took off, but the weather then deteriorated rapidly and the remaining five stayed grounded, leaving HP 1455 (FSL Johnson) and 3131 (Flt Lt Allen) to bomb the airfield and Thourout, while the third HP airborne, 3130, piloted by Flt Cdr H G Brackley, attempted to locate Bruges, steering by compass only above low, dense clouds, until reluctantly Brackley had to abandon the sortie and return with his bomb load still aboard.
Similarly, on the night of 25/26 September, 11 machines were detailed to bomb railway stations at Thourout, Lichtervelde and Cortemarck in an attempt to prevent German reserve troop reinforcements reaching their front lines while an Allied ground offensive was under way east of Ypres. All completed their first sorties, but the intention of sending ten again on repeat raids was part-frustrated by the weather and only four 1455 (FSL Johnson), 3134 (FSL Gibbs), 3132 (Lt Sieveking) and 3129 (Flt Cdr C H Darley) - completed second trips.
Four nights later Zeebrugge locks and the German bomber base at St Denis Westrem were the target for eight HPs from 7(N) and 7A Sqns, while a ninth, 3130, crewed by Herbert Brackley, Paul Bewsher and Gunlayer W E D Wardrop, took off at 1959 hrs carrying four 250lb and eight 65lb bombs to undertake the 250-mile trip to attack a vital railway bridge over the Meuse at Namur. Reaching his objective without incident, Brackley made two bombing runs and obtained direct hits on the northern end of the bridge, destroying half the railway tracks, then returned to base, having been airborne for four and quarter hours.
By mid-1917 the gradual increase in German airship and, in particular, aeroplane raids against England had created serious concern and on 16 June a signal from the Vice-Admiral Dover Command to Capt C L Lambe (later Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Lambe, KCB, CMG, DSO), the Senior Naval Officer RNAS HQ Dunkirk, suggested the use of Handley Page bombers fitted with W/T sets for 'coastal observation patrols' whenever local weather condition appeared to be favourable for the Germans to raid England, to act in effect as forewarning vehicles. Lambe's reply next day was to emphasize that Handley Pages were totally unsuitable for such a role on any continuing basis, and at the same time pointed out that a substantial increase in RNAS fighters and fighter pilots would almost certainly reduce, possibly even prevent, further German raids on England. Added weight to this last suggestion by Lambe had been the coincidental operational debut of Sopwith Fl Camel fighters only days before, when No. 4(N) Squadron had become the first unit to receive examples of that classic design, and on 4 July its Camels were to intercept a loose gaggle of 16 German Gotha bombers returning from a raid on England.
However at least one Handley Page from Coudekerque was to engage in a specific 'anti-Gotha' sortie, searching for German raiders, though combining this purpose with a bombing raid. On 29 September, 1917, this HP - No 3134, crewed by FSL Gibbs and four Gunlayers, AMs Kille, Langstone, Spencer and Conley from 7A Squadron - was armed with five Lewis guns and eight 65lb bombs, then detailed to patrol at 10,000 ft some 10 miles out to sea northwards of Ostend to search for German bombers.
During its subsequent four-hour patrol its crew spotted three enemy bombers and attacked two of them. The first to be engaged managed to escape into low mists, but the second was met between Ostend and Nieuport and attacked at less than 100 yds range. Five drums of Lewis gun ammunition were fired at the Gotha, which fell away in a very steep spiral and was then lost to the HP crew's sight. The gunner's victim was quite possibly Gotha G IV 602/16, which at about that same time force-landed just over the border of Holland at Sasvan-Gent with a severely wounded Observer, Leutnant Martin Emmler, aboard. Its crew abandoned Emmler and tried to escape internment, but were quickly captured, while Emmler died of his wounds shortly after.[It is not clear where Chaz Bowyer obtained the information about Lt Emmler. Research communicated by Teunis Schuurman in 2010 indicates that Emmler was a member of the crew of 1065/16, another of the three Gotha G.IV lost that night].
As far as can be ascertained from existing documentation, this was the only occasion when a Handley Page actually fought its German near-equivalent Gotha design, although by no means the only time when HPs were engaged by other types of German aircraft. Gibbs rounded out this unique patrol by dropping his 65 lb bombs on Thourout airfield. That same night eight other HPs from 7(N) and 7A Sqns bombed Zeebrugge and the Gotha base at St Denis Westrem, and on the last night of the month eight HPs set off to repeat these raids, though three soon returned with engine problems, leaving HPs 3121, 3122, 3133, 3130 and 1462 to complete the operation.
While the Coudekerque-based bombers were pursuing their night offensive in the late summer of 1917, increasing German submarine (U-boat) activities along Britain's eastern coastal waters areas had prompted a parallel stepping-up in aerial patrols by UK-based aircraft of both the RFC and RNAS. As extra 'muscle' for these patrols four Handley Pages - 3123, 3125, 3127 and 3136 - were detached from Couderkerque and flew to Redcar on the north-east English coast, from where they were to be employed on anti-submarine patrols, on 5 September. During the following four weeks these HPs undertook a total of 42 sorties, during the course of which their crews reported sightings of 11 enemy submarines, seven of which were attacked with bombs though without tangible results. On 2 October, however, all four machines were transferred to Manston, where, three days later, they became titled 'A' Squadron RNAS and received their first squadron commander, Kenneth Savory, DSO, on 17 October. The purpose of upgrading this detachment to squadron status was as a nucleus of an eventual complete Handley Page bomber squadron which was planned to cooperate later with RFC bomber units in France in attacking industrial targets in southern Germany.
The eventual move to France commenced on 9 October with ten aircraft and the overall move was completed by 17 October, based by then at Ochey. Here 'A' Squadron joined Nos. 55 (DH4s) and 100 Sqns (FE2bs) to form a new formation, the 41st Wing RFC, commanded by Lt Col C L Newall (later MRAF Lord Newall, KCB, OM, CMG, CBE, AM) whose headquarters were at Bainville sur Madon. This new Wing came into being officially with effect from 11 October 1917 and had resulted from a directive to Hugh Trenchard on 1 October 1917; a separate bomber force for raiding German industrial objectives within operational range of Allied bases in the Nancy area of southern France, created primarily in response to a public outcry in Britain for direct counteraction to German aerial attacks on England that summer.
October 1917 - from Coudekerque Nos. 7(N) and 7A Sqns continued their joint operations in October 1917, paying special attention to bombing the docks at Bruges and the Zeebrugge lock gates, interspersed with other attacks on airfields and railways. On 27/28 October nine HPs left to bomb rail junctions at Cortemarck and Lichtervelde, and airfields at Engel and St Denis Westrem.
Over this last objective a 7A HP, 3122, crewed by FSL G. Andrews, LM G A Kent and 2/Lt W W Hutton RFC, was shot down. On the following night six HPs set out to attack the Cockerill works at Hoboken, Antwerp, and some railway sidings north of the city, while two other machines hit a Ghent rail junction and Bruges docks.
One hour after these aircraft had taken off from Coudekerque, HP 3125 (Flt Lt R G Gardner/S/Lt Terrell/G L Beaver) set off on a lone mission to bomb Cologne, carrying 12 x 112 lb bombs. In the face of a strong headwind, rain and dense mists, its progress was slow and on, reaching Duren Gardner decided the weather was too bad to continue his original intention and therefore dropped his bombs on a brilliantly lit-up factory on the outskirts of Duren. The return flight ran into even worse weather, having to battle through unceasing heavy rain and being forced to steer 'blind' by compass only. Finally, after seven and half hours exhausting flying Gardner managed a safe landing at the RFC aerodrome at Droglandt in the early hours of 29 October, where the utterly exhausted crew rested thankfully before flying back to their base much later that day.
On 30/31 October, nine HPs from the two squadrons bombed airfields at Aertrycke and Lichtervelde, plus the Thourout railway, and were engaged by an enemy night fighter, though this was driven off.
By November 1917, weather conditions in France had become increasingly bad for Handley Page long-range operations, though the aircrews snatched every opportunity to fly even in 'marginal' conditions. In the main their objectives tended to be enemy airfields housing the German bomber units engaged in raiding England, vital railway traffic centres and, as ever, docks at Bruges and Ostend with occasional attacks on industrial factories, nearly all such targets being well within range of the bombers.
The first few nights of November produced adverse weather for HP night operations, but on 6/7th both 7(N) and 7A Sqns sent a total of seven aircraft to bomb railway stations at Thourout and Lichtervelde. Three nights later, however, when a further seven were despatched to concentrate upon St Denis Westrem airfield - HPs 3121, 3125, 3128, 3129, 3130, 3131 and 3132 - these met heavy rainstorms and dense clouds, with the result that only HP 3128 (FSL Johnson) actually reached the primary target and bombed; the remaining aircraft diverted to their alternative objective - Bruges docks - and five managed to locate and bomb these, while HP 3132 abandoned its sortie and returned to base. For the remainder of the month the weather became so bad - gales, dense clouds, heavy mists and driving rain - that no further HP raids were possible until early in December for 7(N) and 7A Sqns.
On 5/6 December 1917 both 7(N) and 7A Squadrons resumed operations by despatching five HPs to bomb St Denis Westrem and Bruges docks - 1461 (FSL Pearce), 3131 (Lt Allan), 3128 Johnson) 3121 (Gibbs) and 3129 (C H Darley) - but on 10/11 December, when five aircraft were detailed to attack Oostacker airfield and the docks at Bruges, only four completed their sorties, the last to take off being forced to land again quickly, when dense fog shrouded the aerodrome, blotting out all visibility.
On 9 December, however, had come a change of 'label' for No.7A Sqn, which became retitled as No.14 Sqn RNAS; while on 8 January, 1918, 'A' Squadron at Ochey was also retitled, becoming No.16 Sqn RNAS and receiving a new squadron commander, H A Buss, DSC, on 28 January. Buss appears to have moved on rapidly from 7(N) RNAS where he became CO on 1 Jan 1918.
If nothing was added to the efficiency of either unit by such changes in titles, they at least probably simplified the work of the administrators at the Admiralty's Air Department by thus eliminating the dual 'A' name-plates (though it should be noted that yet another 'A' Sqn RNAS existed in 1917, at Thasos in the eastern Mediterranean).
Weather conditions permitted few raids in the remaining weeks of December - mainly against German airfields - but including attacks on Bruges docks, and one such raid on Bruges on 11/12 December resulted in a crash which almost killed three experienced men.
HP 3121 was crewed that night by Flt Lt C H Darley with Wg Cdr T A Cull, DSO acting as Observer, and Flt Lt G Gilmour, and on its return trip it ran into heavy rain. As it neared its aerodrome the aircraft hit the ground at 80 mph, sliced down three trees, then flipped over onto its back, trapping both Darley and Cull under the wreck. Darley's head was pressed into the earth by the weight of an engine, while both men were saturated in petrol from a ruptured tank. The first wouldbe rescuers took some 30 minutes to reach the scene, but had to wait for more men to arrive before sufficient hands were available to extract the trapped crew men from their precarious position. Once extracted, after an hour's ordeal during which Darley could have been crushed to death at any second should the engine slip, while one spark would have incinerated both Darley and Cull, the crew emerged shaken but without serious injuries and were flying operations again within 48 hours.
By December command of 14(N) Squadron passed into the capable hands of Sqn Cdr H G Brackley, DSO, DSC, who was to remain CO until the end of the war. On 18/19 December four HPs from 14(N) - 3129, 3132, 3134 and 3133 - set out to bomb the Brugeois factory, though 3133 failed to bomb, while on 22/23rd five from 14(N) and four from 7(N) attacked airfields at Ghistelles, Mariakerke, Oostacker and St Denis Westrem, plus Bruges - the final HP sorties from Coudekerque in that month. An indication of the efforts of the two Coudekerque-based squadrons for the period April-December 1917 alone can be judged by the following statistical table:
Days in Command
Days out of action
35 days awaiting new wing & bomb doors
New radiators fitted
Lost at sea 26/4/17
New engines fitted
New engines fitted
Crashed; w/off 24/12/17
Crashed 5/9/17, being rebuilt
This total of 399 individual aircraft night operations at a cost of just three machine lost to direct enemy action is a remarkable record of endeavour, but a glance at the column 'Days out of action' reveals the lost potential effectiveness of the Handley Pages had it not been for, in the main, the weather conditions which nullified operations for much of the period, and no less the struggles by maintenance ground staff to produce serviceable aircraft night after night despite long delays in supplies of new components and spares in general.
As is the case in all flying operations in war or in peace, the basic efficiency of every front-line squadron is wholly dependent in the first place on the unit's ground staff, without whose skills, dedication and long hours of rarely rewarded labours, all aircrews would be 'redundant'. Only when given a fully serviceable aircraft can the flying crews then provide the 'sharp end' of operations towards which the squadron as a whole constantly strives to achieve.
please click on 1917 HP O/400s