Christmas Day 1914 was the day of the Cuxhaven Raid, when the British Royal Navy deployed aircraft carriers for the very first time. It was also the first time that air and sea power had combined to attack targets on land, and it was the day on which my Grandfather, James William Bell, earned the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for his part in the attack.
The sinister shadow of the Zeppelin airships, their large payloads, machine guns and ability to reach the English coast, had been looming large in British minds, and previous raids had been carried out on airship sheds at Düsseldorf, Cologne and the works at Friedrichshafen. But the coming raid would be different.
‘Plan Y’ as the raid was officially known, would involve using nine Royal Naval Air Service seaplanes to find and bomb the German airship shed near Cuxhaven, in northern Germany. The seaplanes would be carried close to the German coast by three converted ferries: Engadine, Riviera and Empress. The planes would then be hoisted out by crane onto the sea, start their engines, take off from the water, find the Zeppelin sheds, drop their bombs, turn back, and land on the sea ready to be picked up by the surface vessels. What could go wrong?
On Christmas Eve, as chief mechanic on the Empress, my grandfather had been given 16 bombs, each weighing 20lbs, and told to drill holes in them so that they could be slung under the seaplanes in preparation for the following day’s operation. He was 21 years old at the time, and the rest of the crew were told to move aft in case Bell blew them all to pieces. Luckily he didn’t.
That evening 34 ships, including destroyers, cruisers, submarines and the three carriers moved out from Harwich, and from Scottish waters the Grand Fleet moved south to rendezvous in the North Sea, all to provide support and protection for the three vulnerable aircraft carriers. Bell was on board the Empress, ready to act as observer on aircraft number 814, an Admiralty Type 74 seaplane, with Flight Sub-Lt Vivian Gaskell Blackburn as his pilot.
Apart from the three bombs allocated to each plane the only weapons on the aircraft were the pilot’s revolvers, with six packets of ammunition. Bell was also allowed to carry a rifle.