Keeping the Kaiser at bay
PUBLISHED: 09:09 13 May 2014 | UPDATED: 09:19 13 May 2014
The East Anglian towns of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft were on the front line in WWI, and were the first places to face aerial bombing and seaborne bombardment early in the war, reports John Worrall. Part 1.
As featured in the March / April 2014 issue of Anglia Afloat.
hen Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June, 1914, effectively triggering the First World War, East Anglia’s maritime communities had been minding their own business – which was mainly coastal shipping and fishing; the herring fishery was at its peak and Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft were full of drifters.
And notwithstanding a European arms race over preceding years, the avalanche of events caught even military leaders by surprise.
Consequently, at a time of new and rapidly developing technologies, hostilities initially were a bit tentative and haphazard. The Royal Navy had big warships and new-fangled submarines, some of the latter based at Yarmouth, but although the Royal Flying Corps had been established in 1912 and the Royal Naval Air Service in 1914, flying was still in sticks-and-string territory. This after all was barely a decade after the Wright Brothers got off the ground.
Consequently, when war was declared in early August, East Anglia, the closest part of the UK to Germany, suddenly found itself on the front line with fixed defences mainly comprising the remnants of 100-year-old fortifications built to repel Napoleon - who didn’t actually show up. Now the Kaiser’s forces certainly did show up and quite early in the piece.
For Yarmouth, the action began on a misty 2 November when four German battle cruisers and four light cruisers attempted a bombardment, though the German commander, Admiral Hipper in his flagship, Seydlitz, was a touch nervous, in particular about Yarmouth’s submarines.
Submarines, like nearly everything else, were not battle-tested. Indeed, for the Germans’ part, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had regarded them as a ‘secondary weapon’ and the Kaiser had ordered that they be used only to defend the much-upgraded Imperial High Seas Fleet. But then on 22 September, three obsolete British cruisers, Aboukir, Hogue and Crecy, forming what was referred to, ominously, as the ‘Live Bait Squadron’ patrolling the southern North Sea and eastern English Channel, were sunk within an hour by U-9 with the loss of 1,459 British sailors.
Thereafter, everyone took submarines seriously, not least Admiral Hipper. He stayed 10 miles off Yarmouth and lobbed shells from there, none of them reaching the coast which was doubly fortunate because Yarmouth residents, being equally as new to this war business, had crowded to the seafront to watch what they thought was an action at sea!
Three Yarmouth submarines did attempt a pursuit, one skipper being called from a pub in Norwich and driven as fast as car and road would allow to clamber aboard shouting “Leggo! Shove off!” But after being pointed in the right direction by a returning drifter, his submarine, D5, struck a mine and sank immediately with the loss of 21
of its 26 crew. Ironically, that mine could have been an escapee from a British minefield because mooring technology was inefficient to the point of chaos for both sides. Three drifters were lost to mines on the same day.
The Admiralty started to requisition local fishing boats to work as minesweepers, patrol boats and boom defence vessels. Big steam trawlers from Hull, Grimsby and Aberdeen and drifters from East Anglian ports came to serve along with shallow-draft paddle steamers from all over, 70 of the latter eventually getting involved, eight of them getting mined and another sinking in a collision at Harwich.
By the end of 1914, there were 116 trawlers, 20 drifters and two yachts serving in the Yarmouth area, often making it up as they went along. One yacht, the Sagitta, crewed by Cambridge University students, put a boat out to a mine where Lt Commander Stuart Garnett dived over the side, cut the mooring rope, and then the still live nine was hoisted carefully onto the deck and defused.
Overall, 501 East Anglian herring drifters, including 179 from Yarmouth served the Royal Navy throughout the theatre, of which 53 were lost. The Girl Rose, YH786, was one of 14 sunk in the Adriatic on 15 May 1917 when Austrian cruisers attacked boom drifters.
Meanwhile, anti-submarine measures included the Q-ship, a merchant or fishing vessel with a gun hidden behind false superstructure or deck cargo which worked on the theory that a U-boat commander wouldn’t waste a torpedo if he could surface and sink a ship with his deck gun.
The Lowestoft smack, Inverlyon, saw action in that guise in 1915 after UB-2 had sunk six smacks off Lowestoft in two days. The two-masted, engineless Inverlyon, was fitted with a threepounder gun and its crew temporarily inducted into the Royal Naval Reserve. Then, on 15 August, skippered by regular Royal Navy Gunner, Ernest Jehan, she went fishing with other smacks 35 miles north-north-east of Lowestoft where yet another, the Bona Fide, had now been sunk the previous day.
That evening, UB-4 duly surfaced and its commander began shouting commands to the Inverlyon’s crew in German but when the U-boat was within 30 yards, the three-pounder opened up and, with the rest of the crew firing smallarms, the submarine sank with all hands. English Heritage is now attempting to locate the 41 U-boats and three British submarines from WW1 known to have sunk in British waters. See www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/first-worldwar-home-front/war-at-sea/Lowestoft and Yarmouth came under sea bombardment again in April 1916, with heavy damage to Lowestoft though Yarmouth and its air station got off relatively lightly because of the intervention of British warships. But one shell did hit a large fish store on the Denes, blowing barrels and swill high into the air, “a most exhilarating sight” according to one observer, clearly easily amused.
Yarmouth aircraft tried to bomb the attackers and shot at Zeppelin L13, which was spotting for them but without success, even though one BE 2c chased the Zeppelin for 60 miles.
Zeppelins in fact had been seen as a major threat at the beginning of the war when aircraft were still rudimentary. In January 1915, the War Council was told that Britain had no effective defence against them and that east coast towns would soon be attacked.
And they were. On 19 January, two Zeppelins, L3 and L4, came over to bomb targets on Humberside while a third, L6, was to attack the Thames estuary though not London itself because the Kaiser had relatives there. In the event, engine problems sent L6 home while L3 and L4 hit bad weather and switched their attack to Norfolk, crossing the coast north of Yarmouth at dusk to avoid detection with L4 then heading for King’s Lynn while L3 turned south to bomb fully lit Yarmouth. Two Yarmouth people were killed, the first fatalities from aerial bombardment in the UK, though two more were then killed by L4 in King’s Lynn. Three bombs out of a dozen or so on Yarmouth failed to explode, two of which were taken to the Drill Hall and later out to sea to be exploded by time fuse, causing ‘a great disturbance in the water’ and killing a 20 pound
cod which ‘showed its white belly on the surface’ and was taken home for tea.
But by 1916, fliers and aircraft had come on, spurred in part by the zeppelin threat. They hadn’t shot any down – their first Zeppelin kill would be made by a BE 2c 10 miles off Lowestoft in November that year – but their presence was making the Zeppelins fly higher. In May and June, a number of boats, including the armed trawler, Kingfisher, each carrying a seaplane, patrolled 50 or 60 miles out in the hope of spotting incoming Zeppelins, which always preferred to strike land at dusk. Had one been
spotted, the seaplane would have been lowered over the side if conditions were calm and then taken off to attack. But none appeared. On the other hand, in July, a seaplane spotted a U-boat for the first time, even if the bombing attempt was unsuccessful.
Then new aircraft began to arrive, notably in April 1917 the twin-engined Curtis Large America flying boats, which, once fitted with Rolls Royce Eagle engines to increase power, were a step up from the motley collection of seaplanes and landplanes hitherto defending the seaboard.
The same year saw the appearance of the two-seater Airco DH4, which further confirmed the superiority of heavier-than-air technology, even if it didn’t always get a result. One notable Zeppelin-chasing sortie took place on the 5 September. It began with one crew starting a DH4’s engine only for another pair keen to kibosh the Kaiser to arrive and demand a toss-up to see who would fly. The newcomers ‘won the toss and batted’ and what followed was a sea and air saga straight out of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
NOTE: Sadly there is no room for it here but you can find it – and greater detail on some of these anecdotes - in a highly entertaining and informative chapter on Yarmouth’s war in Part Two of the recent Maritime Norfolk by writer and historian, Robert Malster, Poppyland Publishing www.poppyland.co.uk
English Heritage is now attempting to locate the 41 U-boats and three British submarines from WW1 known to have sunk in British waters.