Airborne spies of the Kaiser?

While browsing through some nice pictures at Werkost of the Shuttleworth Collection, I found this photo of part of a downed Gotha. It looks like the inside of a wing, but it's the accompanying text that is interesting. The fragment itself is inscribed GOTHA BLANC NEZ 1917, and the label says:

PIECE OF GOTHA BOMBER WING RIB, RECOVERED FROM AN AIRCRAFT WHICH FELL INTO THE SEA OFF CAP GRIS NEZ IN 1917. THE MACHINE WAS DAMAGED IN COMBAT OVER ENGLAND AND CARRIED A CREW OF THREE IN ADDITION TO A SPY DRESSED IN FRENCH UNIFORM WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN LANDED IN ENGLAND.

DONATED BY CAPTAIN J.R.W. GROVES R.N. (RETD.), ORIGINALLY IN THE POSSESSION OF THE LATE MRS W. REVELL SMITH WHO SERVED IN THE FIRST-AID NURSING YEOMANRY AT CALAIS.

I've never heard of German spies being inserted by air into Britain in the First World War. German spies there certainly were, but I thought they usually made their way there by neutral countries (mainly the Netherlands), sometimes perhaps by U-boat (much as Roger Casement was landed in Ireland in 1916, though he wasn't a spy). Presumably the spy would drop in by parachute (bit risky to land a big plane like that in a field!), but then one has to wonder why he didn't jump after the Gotha was damaged? The information given is unhelpfully vague - it doesn't say how it was known that there was a spy (probably, they found the body), and only the year is given. As it is, there are several 1917 raids listed in Cole and Cheesman which involved a damaged Gotha crashing off the coast of France, but I don't see any mention of spies. Thomas Boghardt's excellent Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain during the First World War Era (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) seems silent on the matter of aerial insertions.

It reminds me of the phantom airships that were rumoured (and in fact, seen) to be flying around Britain in the years before the war, carrying German spies. Not surprisingly, these false sightings continued into the war, until February 1916 at least.1 Perhaps the rumours later became attached to the Gothas, once they became the principal aerial threat? Or maybe spies really did drop into Britain by air, and I just need to learn more before I speculate ...


  1. Nigel Watson, ed., The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Phantom Airship Scares 1909-1918 (Corby: Domra, 2000), 95. 

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