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The Tondern Raid

On 19 July 1918 six Sopwith Camels from HMS Furious executed the first attack by aircraft from an aircraft carrier. Seaplane carriers, lighters and decking on gun turrets had earlier enabled aircraft to launch from ships, but HMS Furious had been designed specifically to allow aeroplanes to take off from a deck in front of her bridge.

HMS Furious 

HMS Furious was completed on 4 July 1917 and joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow for flying trials. In August 1917 she was the first Royal Navy ship underway on which an aircraft landed, using the short flying-off deck at the bow end. The successful first and second landings were followed by the tragic loss of E H Dunning, drowned when his aircraft went over the edge of the deck. Trials were halted. HMS Furious needed an additional landing-on deck at her stern.

In November she returned to her builders for this modification and was back in service by March 1918 for further aircraft trials, but with mixed success.  Taking off was possible but landing proved almost impossible due to air turbulence caused by the ship’s bridge and funnel.

Nevertheless, in July 1918 HMS Furious, with her complement of seven Sopwith Camel aircraft, headed to Denmark for Operation F7, supported by the 1st Division of the Battle Fleet, the 7th Light Cruiser Squadron and destroyers.

The Mission

Their mission was an attack on the German airship base at Tonder, today Denmark, but part of Germany at the time. Airships were a threat because they had a greater range than fixed-wing aircraft, staying airborne for longer, and were harder to shoot down due to the height at which they flew.

German airships were generally known as Zeppelins, though other types were used. They had been bombing the British mainland since 1915, usually at night.

This was the first blitz on Britain, strategic bombing causing widespread damage and killing many civilians. Destroying Zeppelins in their sheds would save innocent lives.

The Seven Tondern Sopwith Camels

Just after 3 am on 19 July, all seven Sopwith Camels took off. One returned due to engine trouble and, unable to land on Furious, had to ditch in the sea.

A Zepplin

The remaining six reached the three airship sheds at Tonder at 4.35 am and dropped a total of twelve 50-pound bombs. The largest shed housed two airships. Three bombs hit the shed, setting alight the gas-filled envelopes of L54 and L60.

Tonder sheds ablaze

L54, also known as LZ99, had made 14 reconnaissance missions and two attacks on Britain in which 12870 pounds (5840 kg) of bombs were dropped. L60, also known as LZ108, had flown 11 reconnaissance missions and one bombing raid on Britain, dropping 6878 pounds (3120) of bombs.

In another shed a captive balloon, used tethered for observation, was also destroyed. Despite the fires and loss of these three large craft, only four German personnel were injured.

The timing of the dawn raid took the airship base by surprise, but guns were quickly manned and fired on the aircraft. 

Only one suffered damage, having a wheel shot off. Having accomplished their mission, the pilots headed for safety. 

Mission Complete

Three had insufficient fuel to get back to the ships and landed in Denmark, where they were interned as Prisoners of War. The other three flew back out to sea.

As the landing-on deck of HMS Furious was unsuitable, the only option was to ditch in the sea alongside.

One of the aircraft managed this safely. A second suffered engine trouble and ditched near one of the escort destroyers. The third pilot was not seen or heard from again, a sad end to a historic morning.

Two of the pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Order, with the other four being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The DFC awarded to N E Williams, one of those taken Prisoner of War, is in the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, along with a fragment of one of the Zeppelins destroyed in the raid,

presented to Williams after the armistice.

NE Williams – Aviator Certificate


William's letter about the Zeppelin fragment
 

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