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   Chapter 7 THE BOMBING OF TONDERN

To Kiel in the 'Hercules' By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 24373

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The German airship station at Tondern was by no means the largest of the enemy naval stations, but its position gave it an importance not measured by the number of its sheds or its airships.

Situated in Schleswig, not far from the Danish border, its ships were available equally for reconnaissance in the North Sea or the Baltic, including the Kattegat, and all the devious straits and passages between Denmark and the Scandinavian Peninsula. In a way, with the seaplane station at Sylt, it formed the first line of defence against the ever increasing British mine-laying sorties in the North Sea and Kattegat. The actual attacks against these mine-layers came to be left more and more to the seaplanes, though, in the first years of the war, considerable bomb-dropping was attempted here from Zeppelins. The vulnerability of the airship to aeroplane attack-and, notably, the destruction of a Zeppelin by a plane launched from the light cruiser Yarmouth-put an end to their work in this r?le, and compelled them to confine their activities entirely to reconnaissance. It was the great effectiveness of the long observation flights from Tondern which determined the R.N.A.S. to make a strong endeavour to put an end to the menace by destroying the sheds. Besides greatly hampering the British mine-laying program they were also credited with supplying the Germans with invaluable information for both their surface raids and submarine attacks on the Norwegian convoys.

The only way in which Tondern could be reached was by machines launched from a carrier ship, and for this purpose the Furious, on account of her great speed and size, was perhaps better adapted than even a ship of the type of the Argus, in spite of the fact that the latter was specially built for the work, while the former was converted from a cruiser of the Courageous class. The raid, as any attempt of the kind must be, was prepared for some time in advance, and was only launched when it appeared that all conditions were especially favourable for its success. Probably the astonishing Admiralty intelligence service played an important, perhaps a decisive, part.

There was one point which favoured a raid upon Tondern as compared with an air attack upon one of the stations farther south. This was its proximity to the Danish border, which offered an alternative way of escape if return to the vicinity of the carrier ship should be impracticable. This was fully reckoned with in planning the raid, for it was well understood that the presence of numerous chaser squadrons from the German coastal seaplane stations might effectually bar the way back to the Furious or her escorting destroyers. Of the raid from the British standpoint I can tell little or no more than was revealed in the bulletin issued by the Admiralty a few days after it took place. This said, in effect, that a number of aeroplanes, launched from a carrier ship, had carried out a raid upon the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern shortly after daylight; that, in spite of the vigorous anti-aircraft fire encountered, hits had been observed upon at least two of the sheds, and that it was believed that any airships they contained must have been destroyed; and that some of the pilots had been picked up at sea, while others had landed safely in Denmark. Two or three were still unaccounted for, and might have either been lost in the sea or been taken prisoner by the enemy. This number was subsequently reduced to one, and he, it was reckoned, must have sunk with his machine in the sea.

This was all the public were told of what was undoubtedly the most successful raid of its kind ever carried out, except for the usual more or less conflicting versions from Denmark and Holland. No one seemed to know for certain whether any Zeppelins had been destroyed or not, and if the Admiralty Intelligence Department knew, it kept its knowledge to itself. The fact that the British mine-laying squadrons had, from that time on, less to report of Zeppelin activity in the Skager Rak was encouraging, however, and seemed to show that the Zeppelins were being kept out of harm's way.

Under the armistice agreement the Allied Naval Commission had the right of visiting any of the German naval air stations. This gave them an opportunity to see at first hand what damage had been inflicted in the Tondern raid. So one of the sub-commissions put this station upon their itinerary. One officer in particular-he had directed the raiding operations from the Furious-was especially anxious to go. But luck was against him, for the destroyer in which he was visiting the Borkum and Heligoland stations was delayed by fog, and he was too late to go with the Tondern party.

FLOATING DOCK FOR LIFTING SUBMARINES IN KIEL HARBOR

The efforts made by the Germans, first, to prevent this Tondern visit being scheduled at all, and, after it was decided upon, so to delay it that the party making it should only arrive after dark and thus have limited opportunities for observation, were a revelation of Hun psychology. "The Hun," said an officer of one of the air-station parties on his return to the Hercules one evening, "is one of the most truthful individuals in the world-just as long as he knows you are in a position to find out the truth anyway. But if he thinks he can prevent your finding out the truth by lying, there seems to be no limit to the lengths he will go." Then he went on to tell of how an unusually affable and courteous young German flying officer, who had conducted his party to Norderney two days previously, had taken every occasion to point out how much trouble, and how profitless and uninteresting a visit to Tondern would be. He said that the station was a long distance out of the way, that reaching it would involve trips of some hours by both train and destroyer, that it was not in a region under the control of the Wilhelmshaven authorities, and that there was nothing to see anyway, as the sheds had been dismantled before they were bombed, and that there were no airships in them at the time they were destroyed. Pressed on the latter point, he had reiterated the statement, adding that the raid, though it was well planned and executed, had been a great waste of effort. "It will take much time, and you will see nothing, nothing at all, I assure you."

"When I told him," continued the British officer, "that we would go ahead with the visit for sentimental reasons, if for no others, he seemed a good deal upset, and this morning he did not turn up at all. The commander who came in his stead told me quite frankly that there were two Zeppelins destroyed at Tondern, and that he was to go in person with the party to see, as he put it, that it was 'properly received.' He had such an 'open-and-above-board' manner about everything that I'm inclined to think there's some 'catch' in his plan. It's probably on the score of time, or connections, or something of that kind. He says that, between destroyer, launch, and train, it is an eight-hour journey; but I have made up a schedule that will give us a good two hours of daylight there if there is no slip up on the Huns' end of the arrangements. We push off in the Viceroy at seven in the morning, and ought to be at Tondern by three. When we rejoin her again at Brunsbüttel's another matter."

Just where the "slip up" was meant to come became evident the next morning, when the German pilot was half an hour late in coming off to the Viceroy. As the sixty-mile run to Brunsbüttel was to have been covered at a rate of but fifteen miles an hour, a destroyer capable of doing close to thirty-five had no difficulty in making up the lost time, though once she was all but compelled to anchor on account of fog, which closed down just before the outer Elbe lightship was picked up. The railway station, close beside the gates of the Kiel Canal, was in plain view from the deck of the Viceroy, but the delay in sending off the promised tug to take us to the landing, with a further delay in the starting of the waiting special, set back our departure from Brunsbüttel an hour behind the time scheduled.

As all the trains previously put at the disposal of the Allied Commission had been given the right of way over everything else on the line, we had good reason to believe that this time might also be made up in the course of the run across absolutely level country which separated us from Tondern. It was little more than one hundred miles. When, far from making up time, we continued to lose it-both by waits at stations and by slow running between them-our mounting suspicions that the Germans meant to keep us hanging about till after dark seemed to be confirmed. A protest to the Korvettenkapit?n conducting the party brought only a shrug of the shoulders and the assertion that the bad conditions of the track and the engine made greater speed too dangerous. As there was no doubt that the engine was clanking and banging a good deal, and that the bogey immediately under our compartment had at least one "flat" wheel, about the only reply we could make to this was to point out that the twelve-car train which had just passed us was doing at least twice our speed.

"Ah! but that train had the good engine," was the na?ve reply. It hardly seemed worth while asking why our special had not also been provided with a "good" engine. Some sort of directions were given to the engineer, however, and there was sufficient acceleration of speed (at the expense, it appeared, of cutting off the steam heating the car) to bring us into Tondern station with something like three-quarters of an hour of daylight still to the good. This was so contrary to the plans of our hosts that the train was kept waiting in the station for fifteen minutes on the pretext that the party of officers from the town who were to accompany us had not yet arrived. The crowd on the platform, amongst which Danish types predominated, seemed to be genuinely friendly, but a couple of Red Cross girls who stepped forward to offer refreshments were waved savagely back by an armed guard.

The ragged silhouettes of the bombed sheds were in plain sight, but a mile or so distant, when (the German officers having arrived and taken their places in a spare compartment) the train, with much wheezing and clanking, started up again and ran slowly out on to the spur towards the airship station. It would be but a few minutes more, we told ourselves, and there would still be light enough to see the general lay of things. The engine never increased its snail's-pace of three miles an hour all the way, and when it came to a stop at last, close beside a towering wall of steel, there was barely light enough to show the top of the wall against the dusky, low-hanging clouds of the early twilight. Our conductor had maintained his schedule to the minute. When we alighted he was voluble in his explanation of how the track of the spur was in such a state of disrepair that a greater speed would have been attended by the risk of derailment. There was nothing that we could say to refute this specious protestation, until, on our return journey an hour or two later, the engine (which had been making steam in the interim) whisked the two cars over that same spur at the giddy rate of twenty miles an hour-a good six times as fast as we had come.

The commander of the station, saying that, as the hour was late, we doubtless would desire to get the inspection over as quickly as possible, started off into the darkness at a brisk pace, the rest-British, Americans, and Germans-stumbling along in pursuit as best they could. Entering the shed by a side door near which the train had stopped, we found it so poorly lighted that the opposite wall showed but dimly, while the ends and the soaring arches of the roof were lost in dusky obscurity. At that first glimpse-probably the fresh smell of the cement under foot and the palpable newness of the pressed asbestos siding under one of the lights had something to do with it-the shed gave one the impression of being just on the point of completion. The description of the station furnished to us mentioned no such structure, so that we

were rather at a loss. No explanation was volunteered, however, and our guide pushed on straight across, with the evident intention of passing out through the opposite door. But the senior Allied officer, an American, of commander's rank, stopped him with a request for more light. Half a dozen switches were then thrown over, and flooded the great structure with the brilliant radiance of countless incandescent globes. At once the huge building was revealed as a double Zeppelin shed of the largest size, just at the end of a long spell of restoration after being badly damaged. Fragments of duraluminum and charred pieces of wood and fabric, swept together in great heaps at the sides, told more of the story, and great fresh patches at several points in the roof the rest of it. This was the shed in which the two Zeppelins, which the Germans admitted losing when the station was bombed by the planes from the Furious, had been destroyed. It was the least damaged of the sheds bombed, said the German commander, and it had been rebuilt with materials from two other sheds both of which were in process of demolition.

I saw the Yankee officer's eyes glistening as the picture those words conjured up flashed before them, and heard his muttered "Some raid that, by cripes!"

"If you are zatisfied, ve vill now go on to der oder sheds," the German commander said presently, and we followed him out into the deepening twilight.

Tondern had nothing of the regularity of plan of Nordholz, nor, luckily, the latter's magnificent distances. We found the two remaining sheds, or what was left of them, at less than half a mile from the first. One was nothing but a foundation, with prostrate steel pillars and girders scattered about over it, and numerous deep pools of water. I say deep, because it took two of his colleagues to fish out one of the party who stumbled into it, and he, by the irony of fate, was a stout German officer, with a deep bass voice and a magnificent vocabulary. We had to take the German's word for it that this shed had been a small one, which they were demolishing because it had been obsolete, and not because it had been damaged by bombs.

Men were at work pulling down a section of the next shed as we came up, but they shambled away at a word from one of their officers. This one, said the station commander, was much the worst damaged of the two bombed in the raid, but, by good luck, there had been no airships in it at the time. The reason that it was more badly knocked to pieces than the other, in spite of the fact that, in the latter, the explosion of the Zeppelins was added to that of the bombs, was due to its doors having been tightly closed. This had caused the full force of the exploding bombs to be exerted against the walls and roof of the shed, whereas, in the first one, much of that force had been dissipated through the open front of the structure.

Save a flare or two by which the men had been working, there was no lights in this shed, but, picking our way over heaps of broken glass and asbestos sheeting, we managed to find a point from which the tangled and twisted girders of a still undemolished section of the roof were silhouetted against a stratum of western clouds, yet bright in the last of the sunset glow. For the most part they bulged outward, where the up-gush of the explosion had exerted its force against the roof, but in two places they bent sharply inward, and ended in jagged bars of torn metal. These were the places, the Germans told us, where two of the bombs burst through. One of them explained the remarkable fact of the great holes being almost exactly in a line down the middle of the roof by saying: "Poof! they fly so low they could not miss. Any airman could do that. But they did miss with one bomb, though," he said, brightening. "Come mit me. I show you," and he led the way to a spot forty or fifty feet in front of the wrecked building, where his electric torch revealed a round hole in the earth about five feet in diameter by four feet deep. "I think that bomb miss der top of der shed by one half-metre," he said, sighting along his outstretched arm at what was evidently reckoned the angle of a bomb from a low-flying machine. "Yes, it miss der shed by half a metre; but it kills five men chust der same. Not so bad after all, perhapds." Your Hun officer is ever a cold-blooded reckoner, and one of the reasons he is so useful is that he never lets sentiment blur his perspective.

From various things heard and seen in the course of that hurried night visit of inspection to Tondern it would have been possible to piece out a fairly accurate picture of how the great raid must have appeared to the Germans stationed there at the time. It will be better, however, to set down a brief résumé of the connected account I heard at Nordholz from Von Butlar, Germany's most famous surviving airship pilot, who had, as will be seen, good reason for remembering what occurred on that eventful morning.

BIRD'S-EYE VIEW OF KIEL

IN KIEL DOCKYARD

Von Butlar's2 chief claim to distinction is his notable long-distance flights, the most remarkable of which was in connection with an attempt to carry medical supplies to General Von Letow in German East Africa. The German European forces there were being decimated by malaria at the time, and Von Letow had sent word by wireless that unless a supply of quinine reached him by a certain date he would be unable to carry on. As this campaign was diverting far too much British effort for the Germans to let it come to an end while any card still remained to be played, it was decided to make an attempt to send relief by Zeppelin. A rendezvous was arranged, and after some delay an airship, under Von Butlar's command, was dispatched from a station in Bulgaria, the nearest practicable point from which a start could be made. The delay alone caused the failure of the boldly conceived project, for, flying without a hitch of any kind, Von Butlar had already crossed the Mediterranean, Lower and Upper Egypt, and was well over the Sudan when Von Letow informed him by wireless that the British had occupied the point where he was to have landed, and that, as it was not practicable to rendezvous with him in a sufficiently open region elsewhere, it would be best for him to return home. This remarkable feat was successfully accomplished, Von Butlar bringing his airship safely to earth at a point on the Turkish shores of the Black Sea.

2 Since returning to England I have received information which, while confirming the fact that he commanded "L-59" when it was commissioned, makes it probable that Von Butlar was transferred to another Zeppelin before the East African flight was attempted. A pilot by the name of Bugholz is believed to have been in command on that occasion. Although Von Butlar's representation of himself as the hero of the remarkable African flight appears to have been a case of pure "swank," there is every reason to believe that his account of the Tondern raid is substantially correct.-L. R. F.

A scarcely less remarkable flight was one in which Von Butlar claimed to have crossed the North Sea to near the Yorkshire coast, to have passed north in sight of Rosyth, Invergordon, and Scapa Flow, to have flown across to Norway, gaining useful information respecting convoy and patrol movements, and back to his home station at Tondern or Nordholz. The Admiralty, which had some information about this latter flight, had credited Von Butlar with having been in the air 104 hours, but he assured several members of the Commission that the actual time was little short of six days. He also claimed to have taken a useful photograph of the Grand Fleet at anchor at Scapa Flow.

At the time of the Tondern raid, Von Butlar was flying from there, one of the two Zeppelins destroyed being that which he commanded. As he speaks little, if any, English, the following account is a free translation of the story he related to us in German of what occurred on that occasion. "We always recognized," he said, "from the time that we learned that the British were developing swift 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 had to return to the sea to land, and against these our defence would probably have been effective. Where we deceived ourselves was in underrating the risks that your 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. This trouble became so bad toward the middle of last summer that it was finally decided to withdraw the protecting flight, which was badly needed at the moment elsewhere, until the landing ground had been improved. As usual, your Admiralty seem 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 gun-fire.

"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, in which we 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 would most probably 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 the other. Diving with their engines all out-or so it seemed-they came over with the combined speed from their 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 lengthwise over their targets at a height of about forty 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 getting 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 sight came on when he was no more than fifteen 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 one of 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."

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