On this day 21 December 1914
Squadron Commander Samson flew a Farman MF-II, No 1241, for its first night bombing mission when it attacked a German artillery installation in Ostend on 21st December, 1914 flying from St Pol, Dunkirk.
Samson's personal account of the night was published in an article in a Singapore based newspaper 17 years after the event. It is reproduced below.
FIRST NIGHT-AIR-RAID OF THE WAR How I dropped "Eggs" on an Ostend Battery. (By the late Air-Commodore C R Samson DSO one of the pioneers of the Royal Naval Air Service. Air Commodore Samson, who was known as the "Captain Kettle of the Air Force", died earlier this year)
Ask the next person you meet what anniversary should be celebrated on December 21, and I'll wager you get a puzzled stare for a reply. Even when you give the clue "Dec. 21, 1914" the odds are five to one they give it up. Actually it was the date of the very first night bombing raid made in the War, and I must plead guilty to conducting it. How little did we realise as we stood, a huddled shivering group, around a veritable caricature of an aeroplane that we were making history. On the little aerodrome of St Pol at Dunkirk, was gathered a strangely dressed crowd of officers and men, for beneath greatcoats they wore the uniform of the Royal Navy. They were the very cream of the old RNAS -that lusty infant of the Navy - many of them pioneers from Eastchurch. A competent looking Warrant Officer was going over the old Maurice Farman with its 130mph Canton Unne engine, directing a couple of men who were placing nine small bombs beneath the machine. Now and then there was the flash of an electric torch and muttered words of caution, for absolute secrecy was vital. We knew that spies used the hidden telephone wires connecting them direct with the German lines, and we determined to make the most of the element of surprise.
Waiting for Zero Hour A small clean-shaven officer whose commands were obeyed "on the jump", climbed into "old 1241" and tested the controls for himself. The bomb releases were home-made but thoroughly efficient. None of us knew that within eight months he was to land his machine under the very rifles of the advancing Bulgars to save a fellow pilot, thus winning the VC, the only decoration never plagiarised. [note: This must be referring to Flt Lt Richard Bell Davies VC] Until the last minute I had sat apart by the stove, for my feet were very cold in more senses than one. There was an icy wind, Sidcot flying suits were then unknown and I knew that within half an hour I should be frozen to the bone. Waiting for zero hour is always the most trying part of any new stunt, and I was thankful when I got the word "All Ready". "Light a petrol flare when you hear my engine" I said to the ground staff, climbing into the cockpit. "But I shall probably land on the sands in front of the villa at Saint Malo. The aerodrome is devilishly small by night and, in any case, I funk hitting those confounded telegraph wires across the end of it."
Off on a Great Adventure A subdued chorus of "Good luck" and then the engine was roaring and I was soon headed upwards into the pitch black night. Oddly, now that I was doing something, I forgot to be cold. I thanked heaven that the clouds were at 6,000ft, and then turned seawards until I got about 6 miles from the shore. By running parallel with the coast I hoped to keep out of hearing of the watchers of the German shore batteries, and I was of course, quite invisible. Now and then I used the pocket flashlamp in my breast pocket to glance at the dials and guages. After a long while the Farman climed to 5,000ft and as the Germans had all their lights burning, I could easily pick out Ostend and Zeebrugge besides other lights which indicated the coastal batteries. Down the battle front, Verey lights rose and fell, but, as soon as I got abreast of Ostend, I turned landwards and, throttling down, glided towards the town.
Dropping The "Eggs" I had hoped above all to spot a submarine here, but the harbour was almost empty. As I came down to about 700ft the roar of the "1241" became audible to the Germans below. I wanted very much to unload my "eggs" on the officers club, but this was out of the question on account of killing Belgian civilians. Guns began to fire, half the streetlights went out and a score of searchlights began an agitated quartering of the sky. But they all swept far too high. While I toured calmly above the roofs, gunners flung shell after shell into the night. Men dashed that way and this, and then one of their own searchlights lit up a battery of big guns. The target of a lifetime! I headed for it, let go all my bombs and headed for the sea. I hoped to make an unostentatious exit, but some "friendly" soul must have spotted me against the background of clouds. Of a sudden the Farman was ringed with shells, ahead, behind and beneath. One 11-inch brute - probably from a naval gun - went off like an erupting volcano, and shook both "1241" and me to the core. Jigging from side to side, I went right down close above the water, then nosed ahead into the blackness at the maximum speed of 70mph! What a contrast - one poor, slow little Farman, the pioneer which was one day to be followed by squadrons of gigantic twin-engined bombers which nightly spread devastation far and wide!
Some Other Early Night Raids Before the War I had already made several pioneer night flights across country, and thus was fully cognisant of the difficulties and advantages of night bombing. It is not easy to bring those first night raids to your mind's eye; just as hard, in fact, as it would be today to imagine London without her scarlet omnibuses. During the early days many a German major at Zeebrugge and Ostend must have stumbled into a puddle and have cursed the impudent English aviators who had added this final unpleasantness to war. One night another officer and I went up with the express intention of visiting the famous mole at Zeebrugge to look for submarines. Then, too, it was calm and cold. Out of the darkness we glided on to the harbour, while machine-guns stuttered, searchlights flickered and anit-aircraft shells lit the sky with a lurid glare. The enemy was distinctly flustered. He had not then perfected the wonderful anti-aircraft organisation which was later to come into being, and which made the "game" of night raids of infinitely greater hazard. In this instance we were right on to our target before we were spotted, with the result that, from 500ft, we dropped a bomb from just abaft the conning tower of a submarine. The crew must have had an unpleasant shock, for within 60 seconds we had disappeared into the night, with the nose of the machine pointed towards a hot drink and warm blankets!
Caught in a "Pea Souper" Yet another night I was caught in a real "Pea Souper" fog right over Zeebrugge, and from such a nightmare trip may the Saints preserve me! The actual bombing was not too difficult, but the return journey was the very devil. Flying blind into mist-shrouded darkness, feverishly watching compass, speed indicator and aneroid by flashlight, vainly staring downwards into the murk in the hope of picking up some landmark! A sticky business that! It was a ghastly journey, and how I ever managed to strike it lucky and land on my aerodrome I never could understand. I was scared stiff, for a fog is bad enough by day, but at night and over enemy lines it makes one envy even the infantry in the trenches.
Image Cdr Samson Copyright FAA Museum