By Guy Walters for the Mail on Sunday
Shortly before five o’clock on the morning of Sunday 2 June 2 1918—exactly a century ago this weekend—12 Airco DH.4 biplane bombers of the newly formed Royal Air Force fired up their 375hp Rolls-Royce Eagle engines and lumbered down a grass airfield near Boulogne in northern France.
Each aircraft was carrying two 20-lb Cooper Bombs, as well as one mighty 112-lb bomb. That was a heavy payload, and it meant that whatever 25 Squadron was targeting was going to take one hell of a pasting. The sortie was headed by the squadron’s 27-year-old leader, Major Chester Duffus, a tremendously experienced Canadian pilot who had been credited with five kills while flying flimsy British F.E.2 fighter planes in 1916.
Normally, squadron leaders did not fly on such missions, as they were considered too valuable to risk. However, this sortie was of the utmost importance, and it needed a man of Duffus’s calibre to make sure it went to plan.
At precisely 4.50 a.m., the aircraft were airborne, and climbed to a height of 14,000 ft. Their objective was 100 miles away, and, with a top speed of just over 140 mph, the crew hoped to reach the target near the French-Belgian border by 5.30 a.m.
The aircraft crossed the front lines without incident, and at Le Cateau, about 25 miles from the target, they started their descent to 500ft. Duffus and his pilots and observers knew that the danger was now really mounting, as there were bound to be anti-aircraft guns in the area.
|The Kaiser's Presumed Location|
At 5.25 a.m., the planes reached their target, or more specifically, their two targets. The first was the Chateau de Trelon, and the second was a train sitting on a newly laid siding off a branch line just half a mile northwest of the chateau. Built in the 18th century, the chateau was the property of the Merode family, who had owned the estate since 1580.
However, during the war the building was occupied by the Germans, who used it as a military headquarters. That alone would have made it a juicy target, but on that Sunday morning, the Allies were hoping to bag a somewhat bigger prize than some top brass.
In fact, their mission was to kill none other than the German head of state—Kaiser Wilhelm II. If the sortie succeeded, the course of the war would undoubtedly change, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved. Those 12 aircraft and their 36 bombs had a big job to do.
The Allied mission to kill the Kaiser has never been revealed until now. Although there have been occasional hints that such a sortie may have taken place, the truth finally emerged last week in a novel based on the mission written by a former colonel in the British Army Intelligence Corps. At the beginning of his book, author John Hughes-Wilson presents the "smoking gun" that shows that the mission really did happen. It comes in the form of a facsimile of a page from a journal kept by Lieutenant Archibald Roy Watts—an observer in one of the DH.4s.
Hughes-Wilson says: "For a military historian this was the 'eureka' moment—with the smoking gun being the discovery of an indiscreet pilot’s entry that recorded full details of the secret attack."
In his journal on 2 June 2 1918, Watts writes: "Bomb raid on Kaiser’s chateau at Trelon." He goes on to briefly describe the mission.
Hughes-Wilson was given a copy of the journal by John Watts, the grandson of Archibald. In addition, John Watts also found in his grandfather’s papers a wartime map of Trelon, which clearly shows not only the chateau but also the location of the Kaiser’s train, captioned with the words "Train imperial." Together, the map and the journal entry are conclusive proof that the sortie that day was an assassination attempt.
This hitherto secret "hit" raises some historically important questions. How did the British know the Kaiser was staying at Trelon? Who authorised the attack? What was the thinking behind it? And what would have happened had it succeeded?
The answer to the first question comes in the form of Lieutenant Frederic de Merode, a member of the family that owned the chateau, and who worked as a translator for the French Army. One of his jobs was to interrogate German prisoners-of-war, and one told him the Kaiser was staying at the chateau.
The Allied mission to kill the Kaiser has never been revealed until now. Although there have been occasional hints that such a sortie may have taken place, the truth finally emerged last week in a novel based on the mission written by a former colonel in the British Army Intelligence Corps.
Merode naturally supplied this information to his superior officers. Research in French archives reveals that at some point in June one of them, General Maurice de Barescut, wrote to an attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel Leon de Cointet, informing him: "Merode has told me, from a reliable source, that the chateau owned by his parents in Trelon, in the north, was inhabited by the Kaiser. In a nearby siding there was a train always ready to go that could allow him to escape immediately."
This information was passed to the British. It is at this point that the story starts to get murky. There is no archival evidence to show who received this vital piece of intelligence, and neither is there any documentation to show who made the decision to attack the Kaiser.
"Any attempt to kill the Kaiser could only have been approved at the highest levels," says Hughes-Wilson, a former President of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. Responsibility for such an attack was way above the pay grade of even Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force. In my view, all roads lead to the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
If Lloyd George did indeed authorise the assassination attempt, he would have wanted his involvement to be kept absolutely secret. After all, he was ordering the killing of the first cousin of the King, George V.
If the raid was a success, Lloyd George presumably would have claimed that neither he nor the RAF knew that the Kaiser had been staying in the chateau. But, as it happened, the raid failed. The account in Watts’s journal is succinct. He writes: "Came down to 500ft and dropped bombs in turn and climbed up in formation again. Observers fired at village and train. One machine seen to land and burnt by pilot and observer. 1 A.A. [anti-aircraft] gun near Chateau and AA near Cambrai. Very active. No huns seen."
The baldness of the entry masks the fact that the target was missed.
"The bombing took place, but the castle was not hit,’ says Patrick-Charles Renaud, a French military historian and the author of a book called Through the Eyes of the Poilus (the French equivalent of "Tommy"). The pilots had been briefed that the Kaiser was either in the chateau or on the train, and Renaud says: "The planes preferred to attack the train station from where they thought the Kaiser was going to escape."
The reason the castle was not hit was that the smoke billowing from the explosions caused by the bombs dropped by the first aircraft obscured the building. Several cars in the courtyard were hit, and some 800 rounds of machine-gun fire were unleashed on the train. It needs to be appreciated that air raids in 1918 were hopelessly inaccurate. In fact, the whole idea of accuracy was dismissed. That year, William Weir, a member of the Cabinet and the president of the Air Council, told Major-General Trenchard of the RAF not to worry too much about accuracy when bombing Germany, as "all the pilots drop their eggs into the centre of town generally."
The idea of pinpointing a single building or a train was therefore almost absurdly ambitious, and it is hardly surprising the raid failed. One aircraft was lost, but the remaining 11 made it back to their airfield safely by 6.35 a.m.—just in time for a hearty Sunday breakfast. For 25 Squadron, it was just another day at work, as that summer they were flying some 29 bombing and observation sorties each month. But what of the Kaiser? If he had been in the Chateau de Trelon or on the train, he surely must have had a very lucky escape.
The truth is that the Kaiser was staying at the chateau but had left it—by car it is believed—just 19 hours before the raid. The British had been desperately unlucky and had only just missed their man. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened had the Kaiser indeed been blown to smithereens by a 112-pounder or sawn in half by a Lewis gun.
At the time of the attack, the Germans were mounting their Spring Offensive, sometimes known as the "Kaiser’s Battle." American troops had not yet been fully deployed in Europe, and the Germans were taking advantage. Since the offensive had started on 21 March, they had made huge advances of several miles into Allied territory—the biggest gains since 1914.
The British and the French were very worried, so the idea of killing the Kaiser might have looked an appealing way of halting the German advance or, indeed, of ending the war. Had the Kaiser’s death resulted in at least a halt in the Spring Offensive, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. The total figures for casualties and losses for both sides in the offensive alone was 1.5 million.
However, John Hughes-Wilson suspects that the killing of the Kaiser could have had the opposite effect. He says: You have to remember that Germany was in a terrible state at this stage. Four hundred thousand men were on strike in Berlin, and it looked as if revolution was around the corner.
"Had the Kaiser been assassinated, he would have been a martyr and people might have rallied around the monarchy, and this would have made things more stable—which in turn would have meant Germany may have carried on fighting the war for longer, and not sought an armistice later that year."
If that had happened, of course many more lives would have been lost, rather than saved. Although he did not lose his life 100 years ago, the Kaiser was to lose his throne in November 1918, in the wake of revolution in Germany. He lived until he was 82 and died in the German-occupied Netherlands in June 1941. Today, it is still not clear if he ever knew how close he came to death at the hands of the RAF in this most secret of wartime missions.