Tondern air raid through German eyes

When Lutonian Capt Bernard Arthur Smart (pictured) took part in the first ever air raid launched from a ship at sea and gained a bar to his DSO, the British Admiralty provided no details of the feat he and his fellow pilots had accomplished in destroying the German airship base at Tondern on July 19th,1918.

Even after the signing of the armistice, a writer in The Times claimed that subterfuge had been employed by the Germans to dissuade the Allied Naval Commission set up under the armistice terms from visiting Tondern to see the results of a raid that they claimed had been “well-planned and executed, but had been a great waste of effort”. A visit by the Commission, the Germans maintained, would be unprofitable.

Capt Bernard Arthur SmartBut Germany's most famous surviving airship pilot, von Buttlar, who was at Tondern during the raid, did give a first-hand account of the daring attack launched by seven Sopwith Camel planes from HMS Furious. He told The Times, in an article reproduced in The Luton News (February 6th, 1919):

“We always recognised from the time that we learned that the British were developing flying-machine carriers that Tondern was especially vulnerable to an attack of this kind, and we prepared against it as best we could. We had expected, however, that it would come in the form of a raid by seaplanes, which would, of course, have been comparatively heavy and slow and which would have to return to the sea to land. Against these our defence would probably have been effective.

“Where we deceived ourselves was in underrating the risks that your young men were willing to take, such as, for instance, that of landing in the sea in an ordinary aeroplane on the chance of being picked up in the comparatively short time such a machine will float.

“We were not prepared for such a raid at any time, but especially at the moment at which it occurred. We had had a protecting flight of light fighting aeroplanes at Tondern, but the landing ground had never been properly levelled. There had been many accidents, and a number of the machines were always disabled. The trouble became so bad towards the middle of last summer that it was finally decided to withdraw the protecting flight, which was badly needed elsewhere, until the landing ground had been improved.

“As usual, your Admiralty seemed to have learned of this within a few hours and to have decided to take advantage of it at once. From the way your machines were flying when they appeared, I am practically certain that they felt sure of being opposed by nothing worse than gunfire.

“We received warning, of course, when the raiding planes were still over the sea, but, unless some of the machines at once sent up from the coastal stations could stop them, there was nothing for us to do but to give them the warmest reception we could with the anti-aircraft guns, which were fairly strong.

“Our gunners were well trained, and if your planes had kept high, as they would have done if they had been expecting a strong attack by a superior force of protecting machines, they most probably would have been prevented from doing much harm, instead of just about wiping the station off the map, as they did.

“When we had the warning, most of those without special duties went to the abri, which had been provided at all stations for use in case of raids. But I was so concerned over the danger to my own ship that I remained outside. It was quite light by the time they appeared. At first they were flying high, but while they were still small specks I saw them begin to plane down, as though following a pre-arranged plan.

“It was all over in a minute or two after that. Part of them headed for one shed and part for te other. Diving with their engines all out – or so it seemed – they came over with the combined speed from the drop and the pull of their propellers. Down they came, till they seemed to be going to ram the sheds. Then, one after another, they flattened out and passed lengthways over their targets at a height of about 40 metres, kicking loose bombs as they went.

“Our guns simply had no chance at all with them. In fact, one of the guns came pretty near to being knocked out itself. It was so reckless a piece of work that I couldn't help noticing it, even while my own airship was beginning to burst into flames.

“One of the pilots, it seems, must have found that he had a bomb or two left at about the same time he spotted the position of one of the guns that was firing at him. Banking steeply, round he came, dived straight at the battery, letting go a bomb as his sights came when he was no more than 15 metres above it.

“Then he waved his hand and dashed off after the other machines, which were already scattering to avoid the German planes beginning to converge on them from all directions. It was the finest examples of nerve I ever saw.

“The precaution we had taken of opening the doors of the main shed saved it from total destruction for the airships, instead of exploding, only burned comparatively slowly. But Tondern, as an air station, had practically ceased to exist from that moment.”