The Cuxhaven Raid, Part One

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2021

Soon after the first seaplane flew in March 1910, the French Fabre Hydravion, the French Navy started work on the first seaplane carrier, the former torpedo-boat tender Foudre. The British followed suit, converting the old cruiser Hermes for evaluation and testing, and her aircraft performed well during the summer 1913 fleet exercises. Hermes paid off in December 1913; in case of war, the Royal Navy planned to lease and convert faster merchant ships for the role.

In August 1914, the Royal Navy leased three fast cross-Channel steamers for conversion into seaplane carriers. Engadine, Empress and Riviera could each operate three seaplanes, and with a designed speed of 21.5 knots (which they actually exceeded) they could operate with the fleet’s reconnaissance elements.

Initially they received temporary canvas hangars to accommodate three seaplanes, plus derricks to lower them to and raise them from the water as well as workshops to service the aircraft. Unlike Hermes, they could not launch aircraft directly from their decks. These were small and relatively frail ships, displacing only 2,500 tons and a crew of about 200, with a third of those dedicated to operating and servicing the seaplanes. Work finished in September, and all three joined the Harwich Force, where Commodore Reginal Tyrwhitt had little idea what to do with the vulnerable ships. They had no armor, but did carry about 2,000 gallons of highly flammable fuel for their seaplanes.

In late October First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill urged an attack by seaplanes against the base or bases housing German zeppelins. Zeppelins had bombed targets in France and Belgium, and Churchill believed that they might also strike in the United Kingdom. The First Lord had volunteered his service for the responsibility of defending Britain against air attack, with little idea of how to accomplish this. Destroying the zeppelins at their base - thought to be at Cuxhaven, though this was uncertain - would certainly keep them from dropping bombs on England.

The seaplane carrier, however, was a new concept and the crews of both ships and aircraft spent most of their time training. A great deal had been learned from Hermes’ participation in the 1913 maneuvers, but those had not been carried out under wartime pressure. The three small carriers were makeshift conversions, with cumbersome launch and recovery methods: the planes were hoisted over the side onto the water, where they took off and later landed to be lifted back onto the ship. The aircraft - Short seaplanes of three different types - like their mother ships were frail craft of limited range and load capacity. They require calm water for both takeoff and landing, something not often found in the North Sea.

A Short Folder seaplane is hoisted aboard Hermes in 1913.

Once the vulnerable carriers had been escorted to a launch point within range of the north German coast and their shaky seaplanes had lifted into the sky, they would have to find their target. The mission was described as reconnaissance, with permission to attack targets of opportunity. To help find the German base, Churchill called Irish author and Royal Navy reserve Lieutenant Erskine Childers into service and assigned him to the carrier Engadine to train pilots in coastal navigation.

Childers had become famous for his best-selling book The Riddle of the Sands, positing a German invasion of Britain marshalled among the complicated marshes and channels of the Frisian coast. Childers knew the area well, having sailed them extensively in his yacht Asgard, which he also used to transport hundreds of Mauser rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition to the Irish Republican Army weeks before the war erupted.

Churchill met with Tyrwhitt on 22 October to issue his orders, and the Harwich Force set out two days later with the carriers Engadine and Riviera, carrying six seaplanes between then. They had fine weather when they set out, but by the time they reached their launch point heavy rain had begun t fall and the wind picked up. The carriers place their seaplanes on the water anyway, but four of them could not even get into the air. One made it twelve miles and another twenty before turning back in the bad conditions. A German seaplane flew overhead during the operation as though to mock the failure, enraging Tyrwhitt.

Neither Tyrwhitt nor his boss, Grand Fleet commander Sir John Jellicoe, had much faith in the seaplanes after the October failure. Jellicoe knew that better aircraft would reach the fleet soon, and then the operation might be repeated. But Churchill continued to press for another attempt, and the Admiralty’s War Staff concocted a plan to use the seaplane carriers as bait to lure the High Seas Fleet out for battle in piecemeal fashion. The air raid would provoke the Germans to sortie in hopes of catching and destroying the carriers, and then the Grand Fleet could fall of them with a significant edge in numbers.

Seaplane carrier Engadine.

Jellicoe believed the plan far more likely to result in German cruisers darting out of their harbors, destroying the carriers and darting back well before the Grand Fleet could intervene. The Admiralty overruled him, and after a delay for repairs to Tyrwhitt’s flagship Arethusa the Harwich Force set out with the carriers Engadine and Riviera early on 23 November.

Within hours, radio intercepts indicated what Naval Intelligence correctly believed showed the German First Scouting Group (four battle cruisers and the big armored cruiser Blücher) at sea. The carriers were ordered to turn back, while the Harwich Force and an armored cruiser squadron tried to lure the Germans into battle with the British battle cruisers lurking just north of Helgoland and the Grand Fleet about 70 miles behind them.

That attempt failed, which was probably fortunate for the British cause. Once again, a German seaplane flew over the Harwich Force as if to taunt them, this time tossing several hand bombs at the cruiser Liverpool without any result.

Still enraptured by the idea of a seaplane attack to end the German zeppelin menace, especially as he had done little to install the searchlights, anti-aircraft batteries and fighter squadrons necessary to repel the airships, Churchill urged Tyrwhitt to plan yet another attempt. The British press and public obsessed over the airship threat, even though no bomb had as yet fallen on English soil. Churchill yearned to announce the zeppelins’ destruction, and ignored the chain of command to pressure Tyrwhitt. With Empress now also available, the tiny squadron would have some redundancy, but the weather deteriorated as winter approached. Tyrwhitt crafted a new “Plan Z” to try again with all three carriers and their nine planes.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published more books, games and articles on historical subjects than anyone should. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.