The Gotha was the first ever heavier-than-air strategic bomber
, a German aircraft which was used to bomb London
from bases in Belgium
during 1917 and 1918. Moreso than the Zeppelins which had opened the aerial offensive against Britain, the Gotha ushered in a bleak inter-war period in which it was felt that any coming war would result in the widespread and total destruction of Britain's cities from the air. This exactly mirrored the early Cold War
era of nuclear-armed bomber fleets poised on the brink of armageddon
, and weighed heavy on the minds of those contemplating the rise of Hitler
. The Nazi bombers which had been so effective in Spain did nothing to help the sleep of Europe's politicians.
Heavier-than-air flying machines had been used to drop lethal objects - originally metal darts, later hand grenades - since before the Great War, but until 1916 the only aircraft capable of carrying large amounts of bombs over distances beyond the range of heavy artillery were airships. With a higher ceiling than biplanes, airships were initially a viable weapon of war, and were used to bomb London and the south of England, causing minor material damage but great alarm. Advances in aeroplane engine technology and the invention of the dirigible-killing incendiary bullet put paid to the 'Zep', and for a while fragments of downed Zeppelins were lucrative collector's items in the UK. By this time the propellor-powered bomber became an attractive alternative. Britain's first purpose-built bomber was the Handley-Page O/100, an example of which fell into German hands in January 1917; it was a major influence on Gotha's bomber programme, which had so far produced the undistinguished Gotha G1 'Ursinus', named after Oskar Ursinus, Gotha's chief designer. Gotha's GII and GIII models were very similar to the Handley-Page and saw very little service. It was the GIV and GV that became infamous.
The Gotha was a gothic aircraft. It looked the part, with wide, mildly swept-back wings and often sinister camoflague. The name itself seemed to come from some teutonic, Wagnerian nightmare. Mechanically the Gotha - the company was called 'Gotha Waggonfabric AG' (having originally produced rolling stock), the aircraft was strictly speaking called the 'Ursinus G' - was driven by two 'pusher' propellors suspended between the wings, for a top speed of 60-80mph depending on windspeed. The ceiling was 15,000ft, at which height the crew required thick clothing and oxygen cylinders, with a maximum range of 300-400 miles, again depending on wind. The Gotha's defences included a forward-firing machinegun and two further guns firing backwards, one downwards through a tunnel in the tail. The aircraft's maximum effective bomb load varied depending on expected range and weather conditions, but averaged around 500kg. Other bombers could carry as many kilogrammes of bombs - the Gotha's infamy stemmed from the destination of its bombs rather than the amount.
The first Gotha mission against the British mainland was directed at Folkestone on May 25, 1917. Bombs fell in the high street, killing 95 people, a third of them children, with twice as many wounded. The total was more than the total of all previous Zeppelin raids. The majority had died outside a greengrocers in the town centre. The first Gotha raid on London took place nineteen days later, killing 162. In both raids the Gothas escaped unmolested. 24 days later a third raid killed 57 people. One of the Gothas was shot down by fighters, two of which were in turn shot down. In a little over a month, 314 civilians had been killed and 817 wounded, for the loss of three German airmen. The thought of unstoppable death from above sent a chill wind through the population of London, and the minds of military planners.
From May 1917 until May 1918, when the raids were discontinued, there were 27 Gotha attacks on Britain, which dropped 380 tonnes of bombs and killed 835 people, wounding 1,990. The material damage included the destruction of buildings and the loss of production caused by a workforce forced to seek shelter, but the greatest effect was on the nerves of the civilian factory workers and their families. Much money had to be spent on AAA, barrage balloons, and on retaining aircraft to act as interceptors, and although these measures eventually forced the Gotha fleet to bomb, less effectively, during night-time, they altered the military landscape forever. No longer was the front line the only theatre of battle; there was no 'front line', any more. Where once the Dreadnought had been the ultimate weapon of war, the bomber took its place, where it would remain into the nuclear age, surpassed only by the ICBM.
Over sixty Gothas were lost, the majority due to landing accidents, the aircraft's centre of gravity shifting forwards after its bomb payload was dropped, the shift causing many bombers to flip over if the approach was too fast or too steep. Nonetheless the combined efforts of the RAF and anti-aircraft fire had made the skies too uncomfortable for the Gotha during daylight, the bombers being forced to switch to night bombing from late 1917 onwards. Despite this, the RAF embarked on the next war with a series of daylight bombing raids, before also switching to night operations.
Gotha continued to manufacture aircraft after WW1, initially gliders (the Treaty of Versailles having forbidden Germany from possessing bombers), but later training biplanes and transport aircraft as well. The last aircraft to bear the Gotha name was the Gotha GO-229, a strikingly futuristic jet-powered flying wing which almost, but not quite, entered production in 1945.