At 16:30 hours on the 2nd November 1914, a German battlecruiser squadron, consisting of the battlecruisers SMS Seydlitz, Von der Tann and Moltke, along with the slightly smaller armoured cruiser SMS Blücher and four light cruisers SMS Strassburg, Graudenz, Kolberg and Stralsund, slipped moorings at its base on the Jade River and left Willhemshaven behind as it entered the North Sea.
In command was Admiral Franz von Hipper who’s orders were to lay mines off the coast of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft; and also to shell Yarmouth. Two other squadrons of German battleships were to follow slightly later and lie in wait for any British ships that might be lured into giving chase. These two squadrons of the German High Seas Fleet would be waiting in relatively safe waters near Germany; from there they hoped to pick off any small or isolated British ships.
There was, however, one overiding consideration behind the orders given to Admiral Hipper. In October 1914, The Kaiser had given orders that no major fleet action was to take place; therefore the Imperial German Navy had to seek other ways to attack the British fleet, knowing that the Royal Navy had more ships than Germany, so it was clearly inadvisable to enter into a fleet-to-fleet engagement. Germany also knew very well that the British Navy’s strategy was always to keep the greater part of its Grand Fleet together, so it would always have superiority whenever it engaged an enemy. These were the reasons why the Germans looked to attack British ships individually or in small groups. They attempted to achieve this by a policy of raiding British coastal towns. After a disastrous first attempt to rig the Thames with mines backfired, East Anglian seaside resorts were chosen as their prime targets. The Germans hoped to encourage the British to alter the disposition of its ships in order to protect these coastal towns. This would give Germany increased chances of catching any isolated ships; its preferred choice of engaging with the British.
By midnight of the 3rd November, Hipper’s assault squadron was sufficiently north to be passing fishing trawlers of various nationalities, then by 06:30 hours on the 3rd November, it sighted a marker buoy at ‘Smith’s Knoll Watch’; this allowed ship’s captains to determine exact positions before closing in on Great Yarmouth. No one in the squadron knew what sort of opposition it was likely to meet; and may not have known that the Yarmouth coast was being patrolled by just the minesweeper HMS Halcyon and the old destroyers HMS Lively and Leopard. In reality, these three ships posed little threat to the German squadron, but they did go some way to disrupt German plans while remaining relatively unscathed in the forthcoming skirmish.
It was about 07:00 hours when Halcyon spotted several large warships emerging from the early morning mist. She manoeuvred to challenge whilst, at the same time, radioing a warning of the presence of the German ships, which had began to open fire on Halcyon. HMS Lively, which had been some 1.7 nautical miles behind, quickly closed up and started to make smoke to protect Halcyon. The Germans continued to fire several salvos of shellfire at both HMS Halcyon and Lively, first from their small guns before bringing in their larger guns. However, because of the smoke-screen, plus the effect of the German guns firing-off almost simultaneously, their firing was less accurate than it might have been because it was difficult for each ship to see the ‘fall of shot’ and correct their aim. It was approximately 07:40 hours, when Hipper ceased firing at both ships, and chose to direct, what some believed was, a salvo of a few ‘half-hearted’ shells at the town of Great Yarmouth; it would appear that the German commander still wanted to be seen carrying out his orders in full. However, it was a gesture that proved completely ineffectual since the squadron’s aim remained poor and all its shells fell harmlessly on the town’s beach. At least, the assault maybe allowed for German mine laying to be completed?
Whilst all this was going on, a response to Halcyon’s radio warning was being carried out. The destroyer HMS Success moved to join both Halcyon and Lively, while three more destroyers, in harbour, began raising steam. The submarines HMS E10, D5 and D3 were also in harbour, but moved out immediately to join the chase. Unfortunately for the D5 submarine it met her fate 2 miles south of South Cross Buoy which lay off Great Yarmouth. She was sunk by a German mine, laid by SMS Stralsund moments earlier. Only five members of the D5 crew survived and these included her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert.
Despite the initial shock of seeing enemy ships so close to the British coast, Great Yarmouth residents, the local newspaper and politicians, both locally and nationally, were unimpressed by the half-hearted attack. An eyewitness account recalled by the Eastern Daily Press remarked: “If it was a bombardment of the town it was a very poor half-hearted effort,” which served only “to cause breakfasts to be left almost untouched”. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, later described the German raid as a “silly demonstration”. He was also to add that: “The last thing it seemed possible to believe was that first-class units of the German fleet would have been sent across the North Sea to disturb the fisher-folk of Yarmouth.” Arthur Hungerford Pollen also wrote of the ineffectual attack by saying:
“Private letters speak of salvoes falling short and over in the most disconcerting manner, and of the ship being so drenched with water as to be in danger of foundering. One man was lost through a fragment of a shell”.
By 08:30, HMS Halcyon had returned to harbour in order to provide a report of what had happened. This had the effect that at 09:55 hours, Admiral Beatty was ordered south with a battlecruiser squadron and squadrons of the Grand Fleet following from Ireland. However, Admiral Hipper was already 43 nautical miles away, heading home. At almost the same time the two other German squadrons that had been ordered to lie in wait, spent the night in Schillig Roads where the ships encountered heavy fog the following morning and had to await better visibility. It was also in the early hours of 4 November when the commander of the SMS Yorck, – which was travelling from Jade Bay to Wilhelmshaven – misjudged these weather conditions, with the result that his ship veered off-course to enter a German minefield where it struck two mines and sank in shallow water. A number of the crew survived by sitting on the wreck of the ship, but at least 235 men were killed. After the end of hostilities in 1918, the wreck would be slowly and progressively dismantled, (that is, between the 1920s and 1980s), so as to reduce the navigational hazard it posed.
In the aftermath of the attack on Great Yarmouth, Admiral Hipper was awarded an Iron Cross but refused to wear it, feeling little had been accomplished. However, although the result was far from spectacular, other German commanders were heartened by the ease with which Hipper had arrived and departed and were encouraged to try again on 16 December 1914 when a German Fleet, which included Hipper, targeted the towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby – but that is another story! Back at Great Yarmouth however, there was also the lack of reaction from the British, but this had been due partly to news, that same morning, of a much more serious loss at the Battle of Coronel in Chile; plus the fact that Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, was on a train returning to his ships at the time of the raid. Then, according to Winston Churchill:
“the British could not believe there was nothing more to the raid than briefly shelling [Great] Yarmouth – and were waiting for something else to happen!
Great Yarmouth would suffer more seriously at the hands of the Germans later in the war – the town is believed to have been the first to suffer a casualty from an aerial bombardment, during a zeppelin attack on 19 January 1915.
Banner Photo: Great Yarmouth Central Beach 1904. Public Domain