Historian’s new book explores Great Yarmouth’s forgotten Great War role

Feather Plain recruitment 1915. Feather Plain recruitment 1915.

Thursday, July 31, 2014
5:07 PM

It is a story peppered with names to fire the imagination like Major Egbert Cadbury and legendary veteran Henry Allingham.

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General post card of Zeppelin raid.General post card of Zeppelin raid.

But hobby historian Colin Tooke wants to salute Great Yarmouth for its forgotten role sharpening military kit during the Great War as the world adjusted to new types of combat. His latest book chronicles the heroism and horror of the era showing the town - one of the most vulnerable areas of the country - as one bought to its knees by the conflict, financially in ruins as its buildings smouldered and its population “ready to run for it.”

Initially a virtually undefended commercial port the town soon boasted a naval and submarine base as well as an air base at South Denes - one of the first in the country.

For the inhabitants it was a time of terror bracing themselves for invasion and being especially vigilant.

Attacked from the sky by the Zeppelin menace they were the victims of the first air raid ever in the world - images from the aftermath making a shocking postcard home in contrast to the merry holiday scenes that people usually sent.

Meanwhile the ruthless enemy amassed a hostile fleet to mount the first of three coastal bombardments in 250 years. On that occasion, November 3 1914, the Germans misjudged the distance and all their fire fell short - such was the under-developed nature of much of the weaponry available.

But for the ordinary folk who depended on the fishing and holiday industry times were tough as both revenue streams fell away almost immediately leaving many relying on charity handouts of up to £30 for struggling guest house owners.

Meanwhile few paid their rates and the council went virtually bankrupt without trippers to visit attractions and ride the trams.

Such hardship was added to by the threat of invasion as Germany looked to the East as a way in.

“A lot of the stuff that is in the book has never been published before,” Mr Tooke said. “Especially about the submarine base. The town was at the forefront of developing aircraft carriers and launching planes from ships. They used to take out trawler boats with platforms. Sometimes they lost the plane but saved the pilot.

“People know about the Zeppelin attack but there is a lot that is not generally known so I thought it was time to put that right for the first time.

“Yarmouth is never written about when it comes to the First World War. You read about the soldiers and the battles but not about the impact on the town.”

The town faced three bombardments from the sea which resulted in few casualties but scared the population. Adding to their terror was the giant Zeppelin, a spectre in the skies the like of which they had never seen before and was probably akin to seeing an “alien spaceship,” according to Mr Tooke.

Up to eight submarines were based in the port under the mother ship HMS Electo but their capabilities were limited in terms of defence. Similarly planes were unreliable with not one air-worthy craft available at the time of the Zeppelin attack and no fire-power anyway.

The latter came towards the end of the war when a synchronised system was able to fire through the propellor - helping Major Cadbury towards his heroics destroying two Zeppelins.

Great Yarmouth in the Great War - The Home Front is Mr Tooke’s 30th book - and his first foray into the First World War.

He said it was one of his most interesting efforts and the most labour intensive. The 74-year-old has spent a year trawling newspaper articles and council minutes to document the resort’s experience, supported by dozens of pictures that show the town in a different light during one of its most dramatic episodes.

The book priced £8.99 is available from WH Smith, Cobholm Miniatures in Great Yarmouth, Jarrolds in Norwich, City Bookshop and Music Lovers in Gorleston High Street.

Mr Tooke will be signing copies of his book at Great Yarmouth Minster on Sunday.

An exhibition charting Great Yarmouth in the First World War is being staged at the Minster throughout August and September 10-12.30pm.

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