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Our coastal villages and towns bear witness to war

16:41 14 August 2014

First World War. Pictured: the carnage in Kings Lynn where two people died during an attack by the Zeppelin L4 which mistook the town for Grimsby. Picture: SUPPLIED

First World War. Pictured: the carnage in Kings Lynn where two people died during an attack by the Zeppelin L4 which mistook the town for Grimsby. Picture: SUPPLIED

Picture: SUPPLIED

While most of Britain remained relatively isolated from the immediate impact of war, it was not long before the conflict became very real for communities in Norfolk and north Suffolk. STEVE SNELLING tells how the war arrived on these shores, from the sea and the sky.

First World War. Pictured: The 2/4th Norfolks parade on a misty morning in Lowestoft where they were despatched to guard against invasion. Picture: SUPPLIEDFirst World War. Pictured: The 2/4th Norfolks parade on a misty morning in Lowestoft where they were despatched to guard against invasion. Picture: SUPPLIED

To those onshore, it felt like an earth tremor. The first blast rattled windows and shook many out of bed.

Out to sea, warships could be seen, with “spits of flame” rippling along the skyline, as the sound of gunfire rolled across the water.

The streets swiftly filled with people, many rushing to the seafront for a grandstand view of the action off the coast of Great Yarmouth.

Though they hardly knew it at the time, the crowds who lined the shore from Ferry Hill to Gorleston Cliffs were witnesses to an historic moment.

For, though a confused affair of little or no military consequence, the breakfast-time raid by the German High Seas Fleet on November 3 1914 signalled the opening round in a series of attacks, that brought the war to the people of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Over the next four years, their towns and villages were to find themselves in the front line of an unparalleled offensive that would bring attacks from the sea and the air.

The military response to the first assault did not auger well. Aside from the brave but ineffectual efforts of a local fishery protection gunboat and two destroyers which were fortunate to survive the encounter, there was little to deter the force of three battle-cruisers and three light cruisers.

Aviators and ground crew at Yarmouth ’s naval air station were spectators to the action, with the only available aircraft undergoing repairs.

To embarrassment was added tragedy when a submarine, sallying forth from Yarmouth to chase the enemy, blundered into a mine and was lost.

More by luck than judgment, Yarmouth had survived with little more than a severe shaking. No shells caused any damage to the town, with only one reported to have reached land - a dud plunging into a field beyond Gorleston.

The people of Yarmouth would not be so fortunate the next time the Germans came calling, this time from the air. For on the night of January 19-20, 1915, the town earned the wretched double distinction of being not only the first English town in the war to endure naval attack but the first in history to suffer damage and casualties from an aerial assault.

The Zeppelin raid that night 
left two dead in the town, as 
did another, over west Norfolk, and ushered in a new type of warfare that would bring terror to the region. Over the months that followed, the appearance of airships over the region would become a regular - and sometimes deadly - occurrence. But the threat from the sea remained. And April 25, 1916 dawned with the appearance of another German naval force off our coast - this time Lowestoft.

The bombardment which began at 4.11am used the Empire Hotel and St John’s Church as aiming points, with battle cruisers Lutzow and Derfflinger targeting the railway station, the town’s main bridge and an assortment of harbour installations.

The first salvoes, fired from a distance of 6,750 yards, fell short, but the range was quickly and successfully extended. However, reports from Berlin that forts and important military buildings were destroyed were derided by the British who insisted that extensive damage had been wrought mainly to civilian properties, including a convalescent home, a swimming pool, the pier and about 40 houses with another 200 less seriously damaged.

Given the weight of firepower, the death toll was surprisingly light. Four people, including an eight-month old baby, died and another 12 were injured.

It had been the Germans’ intention to attack Yarmouth after Lowestoft, but the battle cruisers had hardly begun ranging on the town when a force from the Harwich Flotilla intervened, causing the Germans to retreat.

The raid had lasted less than an hour, but the shockwaves were felt for some time. 
For months afterwards, locals would leave the town at night to sleep in the countryside, while schools reported low attendance, with families moving further inland.

In fact, it proved the last such German attack, and - in a sign of the turning tide in the East Anglian war - within months, the “Home Front” would have a success to trumpet, with the downing of a Zeppelin within sight of Lowestoft pier.

For more in depth stories from the First World War click here

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