In December 1903 – the same year as the publication of Riddle of the Sands – Orville and Wilbur Wright were at their camp near the Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. They had spent seven weeks fiddling with a miracle device – a powered biplane – alongside performing flight tests with a glider they had built the year before.
On December 14, Wilbur Wright climbed onto the powered biplane but stalled it on take-off, damaging the front section. It took three days to make repairs, and for the weather return.
So it was that on December 17th, Orville climbed into the biplane at just past ten thirty in the morning. He flew the biplane for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet. Then it was Wilbur’s turn again – he managed 175 feet. Orville responded with 200 feet. And then Wilbur, in the final flight of the day, flew their flying machine 852 feet in 59 seconds.
So, in the same year that Childers’s book was published to warn of the danger of invasion from Germany’s north sea coast, a device was invented which would transform the concept of invasion. Childers was right, after all. He was just wrong about the mechanism of attack. It would be from the air, not the sea. Or, to be completely accurate, it would be a mixture of the two.
Carruthers and Davies sail past Cuxhaven on the estuary of the Elbe on October 5th, little imagining the new world that is coming. In 1912, on land behind Cuxhaven, at Nordholz, work began on building a new type of installation – an airbase.
Flight operations began at the Nordholz Naval Airbase on 2 September 1914, with the landing of a Zeppelin L 3. In October 1914, the Marine-Luftschiff-Abteilung (Naval Airship Division) moved from Hamburg to Nordholz. And in June 1915, German Navy Zeppelins from Nordholz began bombing London – though Army Zeppelins had already started.
It’s impossible not to be taken with the speed at which things changed, as if a new world order was born on this stretch of coast, almost beneath the eyes of Childers himself. Technology drove warfare so quickly that by 1914 bombs were falling from the air, troops were bogged down in trenches, and the buccaneering prospect of invasion from the sea was an already-antique memory.
Britain moved quickly to try and strangle Nordholz at birth. On Christmas Day 1914 – the same day British and German troops were supposedly playing football in the trenches – Britain launched the first combined naval-air attack anywhere in the world, and its target was Nordholz.
Three seaplane tenders – the Engadine, the Riviera and the Empress– sailed to within striking distance of the Nordholz Zeppelin sheds, and lowered nine seaplanes into the water. Only seven were able to start their engines and take off (remember, this was barely 11 years after the Wright brothers climbed onto their biplane in North Carolina). Success was mixed, though most of the High Seas Fleet was moved into the Kiel Canal as a result of the raid.
One of the seaplanes used that day was piloted by Flight Commander Cecil Francis Kilner. Accompanying him was the man who provided navigational briefing for the mission, and acted as overall navigator and observer.
He was an expert on the landscape and seascape of this part of the world, because 17 years before he had sailed it, and 11 years before he’d published a bestselling novel about it. Erskine Childers looked down at the sea he had sailed in the Vixen, and watched bombs falling on it from the air. Davies would have been appalled. I can’t help feeling Childers must have been, as well.