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Great Yarmouth's lucky escape and the failed bombardment

PUBLISHED: 17:20 02 November 2014 | UPDATED: 17:20 02 November 2014

What might have been: scenes of devastation in Lowestoft following the German navys bombardment in April 1916. Great Yarmouth only narrowly avoided the same fate a century ago.

What might have been: scenes of devastation in Lowestoft following the German navys bombardment in April 1916. Great Yarmouth only narrowly avoided the same fate a century ago.

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One hundred years ago, a German battle fleet bent on wreaking destruction in Great Yarmouth sent shockwaves swilling across the country. The EDP reveals the truth behind Norfolk's lucky escape.

scenes of devastation in Lowestoft following the German navys bombardment in April 1916. Great Yarmouth only narrowly avoided the same fate a century ago.scenes of devastation in Lowestoft following the German navys bombardment in April 1916. Great Yarmouth only narrowly avoided the same fate a century ago.

Winston Churchill called it “a silly demonstration”, a posturing and ultimately pointless exercise in sabre-rattling which seemed designed merely “to disturb the fisher-folk of Yarmouth”.

Of course, the view from the other side of the North Sea was rather different. To the German press, the High Seas Fleet’s strike against the British port of Great Yarmouth three months into the First World War was “truly a master stroke”, an audacious assault that had exposed the vulnerability of the English coast to attack from the sea and the weakness of the Royal Navy’s defensive measures.

One Berlin newspaper went so far as to mock the First Lord of the Admiralty. Recalling Churchill’s boast that the navy would “dig out” and destroy like “rats in their holes” the German fleet in their home ports, the Tageblatt scornfully observed: “The rats have now ventured under his very nose, and he did not even take the opportunity to catch them.”

The reality behind all the bluster was that the German navy’s early morning raid on the Norfolk coast on November 3, 1914 was something of an embarrassment to both sides.

The German armoured cruiser Yorck which was lost with almost half its crew while returning from the raid on Great Yarmouth.The German armoured cruiser Yorck which was lost with almost half its crew while returning from the raid on Great Yarmouth.

In purely military terms, the thrust was a costly failure. Contrary to the enthusiastic newspaper reports in Germany, not a single shell had struck the town, though one or two had burst on the foreshore, and, far from being the great victory related in the headlines, the operation had ended disastrously when an armoured cruiser blundered into a minefield and was sunk with the loss of half its crew.

For the British, the appearance without warning of an enemy battle-fleet within a few miles of a coastline patrolled by units of the world’s most powerful navy which had enjoyed a century of maritime supremacy came as a terrible shock.

As well as raising questions about naval intelligence and the watch being kept on enemy ports, the first major surface offensive into the North Sea by the High Seas Fleet served to further stoke pre-war fears of a German invasion along the weakly defended coast of East Anglia.

To read national newspaper reaction to the raid a century ago is to enter a strange fantasy world. According to the Daily Mail, the arrival of the Germans within 10 miles of Norfolk was “incontestable proof that… the east coast swarms with German spies”.

An artists impression of the Yorck sinking after striking two mines guarding the way into her home port.An artists impression of the Yorck sinking after striking two mines guarding the way into her home port.

Reports of a carrier pigeon being shot at Framingham “almost at the moment the German ships were off the coast” coupled with the enemy’s ability to evade our minefields and to respond to signals despatched by a British gunboat were all ‘evidence’ of secrets having been passed by an army of clandestine agents to a dastardly enemy hell-bent on our destruction.

Fanciful though they were, such forays into the realms of pot-boiler fiction reflected a feverish desire to explain away a blow to British prestige that might have been far more damaging but for a brief and thoroughly unequal encounter within earshot of the Norfolk coast.

Indeed, the story of the Great Yarmouth raid a hundred years ago might have been rendered very different with altogether more frightful consequences for the town and its citizens had it not been for the presence of a small, 20-year-old minesweeping gunboat fortuitously positioned in the mist-shrouded path of a powerful enemy raiding force made up of three battle cruisers, a large armoured cruiser and four light cruisers.

HMS Halcyon was an unlikely vessel to play a leading role in a major naval action. Thus far her war had been as uneventful as it was undistinguished. November 3, 1914 promised to be no different from the previous 90 days as she departed Yarmouth Roads on her daily duty to keep the coastal shipping channel clear of drifting mines.

She was headed in the direction of the Cross Sand light vessel near a point known as Smith’s Knoll where, around 7am, a look-out spotted two unidentified, four-funnelled ships looming out of the early morning mist, some five miles away to the north.

Halcyon’s signalled challenge was initially ignored, if it was seen at all. A second attempt using searchlights was similarly unsuccessful, but a third drew a thunderous and potential lethal answer.

The sea fairly boiled in a torrent of waterspouts as heavy shells bracketed the little gunboat, drenching her decks with water and shrapnel.

“Shells were falling all around us,” wrote Signalman Golding in a letter home. “They shot our yardarm away… They shot a couple of holes in the bridge, one of them cutting the compass clean in halves and seriously wounding the man at the helm.”

One shell tore a jagged path through the ship’s funnel while another knocked out Halcyon’s wireless, but not before she had sent off the all-important signal that she was “engaged with a superior enemy”.

In the face of hopeless odds, the battered gunboat fought back bravely if unavailingly. Golding noted: “We fired seven shells from our 4.7 gun just to show them that they hadn’t killed us, but they went miles short, as their guns hopelessly outranged ours.”

By all the law of averages, Halcyon should have been blown out of water within minutes of her unwitting encounter with the enemy raiders, but a combination of poor shooting and the intervention of a British destroyer engaged in a routine offshore patrol just two miles away contrived to spare the gunboat.

Her course partially obscured by the smother of water thrown up by the German cruisers’ shells and by the smokescreen gallantly laid by the destroyer Lively allowed her to escape.

As Golding recounted: “It was a marvel we were not sunk in about a couple of minutes.”

Even more miraculous was Lively’s survival. For almost a quarter of an hour, the elderly destroyer, one of two operating off Norfolk at the time, was under fire from the enemy fleet, yet came through completely unscathed.

Their ordeal proved Great Yarmouth’s salvation. The German strike, which had been sanctioned five days earlier with the aim of penetrating British home waters, scattering mines in coastal shipping lanes and mounting a morale-boosting attack on an enemy port, had unravelled just at the moment when their objective lay at their mercy.

With surprise lost and the likelihood of a British counter-stroke to cut off their line of retreat, the German commander, Rear Admiral Franz Hipper, under instruction to avoid heavy losses, decided to curtail the attack.

Ordering his ships to cease firing at Halcyon and Lively, he turned his battle cruisers back to sea. As the fortunate British ships fled to safety, the raiders departed, scattering a few shells in the general direction of Great Yarmouth.

It was less of a bombardment and more of a parting shot, though the readers of hyperbolic reports in some national newspapers could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. The local press was more restrained. ‘Exciting scenes off Yarmouth & Lowestoft’ ran one headline, while the Yarmouth Mercury preferred the accurate if negative strap-line ‘Nearly bombarded: An Early Morning Sensation’.

“If it was a bombardment of the town it was a very poor half-hearted effort, the chief results of which were to set afloat an astonishing series of rumours, to cause breakfasts to be left almost untouched, to cause quite a hubbub of conversation and speculation during the day, to give terrified women a bad head and to countermand at least one order for some new curtains,” observed one eyewitness.

Yet for all the jocularity, the shock of a war waged so close to home was palpable. “It seemed incredible that the enemy in apparently strong force were right on top of us,” wrote one reporter who was on the spot, “and many were hard to convince that it was nothing more than our ships exploding mines or practicing off this part of the coast, until they saw the shells actually bursting dangerously near the shore.”

The realisation that the gunfire offshore was no drill was enough to provoke a “hurried flight” from homes bordering the harbour mouth.

Elsewhere, panic-stricken residents, some of them still in their bed clothes, were seen running from their seafront homes. A battle offshore that had shaken houses and seriously rattled many townspeople had the effect, according to one report, of “spreading alarm everywhere”.

As far away as Norwich, where the thunder of the guns was heard, rumours spread that the seaside town had been reduced to ruins. Others claimed to have seen ships sunk and torpedo boats charging towards the enemy battleships.

The truth was altogether more prosaic. Of all the shells hurled haphazardly towards Great Yarmouth only one was said to have reached land and that was a dud which burrowed itself into a field due west of Gorleston.

The Royal Navy’s response was almost as lamentable. At the South Denes naval air station, aviators and ground crew were powerless to intervene because of a lack of aircraft. The only one available was undergoing repairs.

Of the admittedly few craft in the port that were capable of hitting back only one made a serious attempt to do so and that ended disastrously almost as soon as it began.

With the raiders already headed for home, the submarine D5, which was travelling on the surface near the Corton Gap, struck a mine. Whether it was one of those laid by the Germans or a British mine that drifted loose from its original position was never ascertained.

Around a dozen men were left floundering in the icy water, including the boat’s captain, Godfrey Herbert.

He later recalled the life-or-death struggle that followed as the survivors fought a desperate battle to stay afloat. Exhaustion and the effects of the freezing water quickly took their toll. “First one and then another would throw up his hands and go down,” wrote Herbert. “For some minutes I held on to one of the stokers, who was close to me, urging him to keep his head, but he got heavier and heavier till, seeing that we should both go under, I had to release my hold of him.”

By the time help arrived in the shape of the herring drifter Faithful only five, including Herbert, were still alive.

However, the casualties resulting from the ill-starred raid on Great Yarmouth were not confined to the British side. Though it took a while for the truth to emerge, German losses dwarfed those suffered with the destruction of the D5.

Retreating across the North Sea, Hipper’s ships had managed to evade the Royal Navy’s attempt to intercept them only to fall foul of a fogbank masking the channels that led through their own minefields to their home ports.

At dawn the following morning disaster struck. The 9,350-ton armoured cruiser Yorck strayed off course, touching off one mine and then another before capsizing with the loss of 235 men.

It represented a grievous self-inflicted wound that piled further agony on what was already, in spite of the spin applied by the German high command, regarded as an embarrassing flop. So much so that Hipper refused to wear the Iron Cross. “I won’t wear it,” he was purported to have told colleagues, “until I’ve done something.”

That ‘something’ came some six weeks later when he led another tip-and-run sortie across the North Sea. This time there would be no lucky Halcyon-style encounter and the hapless citizens of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby bore the brunt of the kind of bombardment intended for Yarmouth and later visited on Lowestoft.

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