In another post, we talked about ‘Hunstanton’s Great Secret’ which was pivotal in changing our fortunes in the Great War. Yet other towns also played a vital role in the conflict and no story is more fascinating than that of Kings Lynn: although experts still debate the exact impact of the facts given below on the outcome of the war, it is a remarkable story in several ways, not least as an example of ‘thinking outside the box’ when faced with a problem that at first appeared to defy resolution. It is all about cordite, conkers and the future inaugural President of Israel.
What is cordite?:
Cordite had been used by the British Army as a propellant for shells and bullets since 1889 – previously, black gunpowder had been used. A vital ingredient of this was acetone, along with nitro-glycerine and gun cotton. Pre-war production involved huge quantities of birch, beech and maple which, through a process of dry distillation known as pyrolysis, produced the cordite. As demands increased manifold at the beginning of the war, Britain was forced to seek imports from America, a state of affairs clearly unsustainable given the success of the U-boat campaign. By 1915 there occurred a ‘shell crisis’ when British guns were limited to firing only a few times each day.
Enter Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann, the Queen and lots of boy scouts:
It was at this time that the Ministry of Munitions was set up under future Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who asked renowned Manchester University chemist Chaim Weizmann to look for alternative ways to produce acetone. He set to work and came up with a new anaerobic fermentation process that used a bacterium, which came to be called ‘Weizmann Organism’, to produce large amounts of acetone from various foodstuffs including grain, maize and rice. Two new factories were built to build upon this success, one at Holton Heath in Dorset and the other at Kings Lynn. They were very successful, producing between them enough gallons of acetone – about 90,000 a year – for the British armed forces.
Problems occurred in 1917 as grain and potatoes became scarce because of German U-boat operations. Weizmann was asked to perform yet another miracle and he began experimenting with the common conker. As this looked very promising, the government launched a nationwide scheme to encourage youngsters and adults alike to gather as many tons as possible. Kept keen by the payments of 7s 6d (37.5p) for every hundred weight, 3000 tons were collected for the Kings Lynn factory. It is part of folklore that even the Queen joined in at her Sandringham gardens. Much was sadly left to rot as school children proved too adept at this task.
Production began in April 1918 but there were many teething problems and not as much acetone was produced as hoped for. Production ended after about three months but by then the war was clearly being won.
First President of Israel:
Chaim Weizmann’s contribution to the world continued after the war: he became the first President of the state of Israel which was established in 1948. He died in 1952.
Sources: Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:
Photos: By Daniel Tink, except where otherwise acknowledged.
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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 overriding 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.
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The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it became its Regimental March in 1881. Even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. It is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main; floor
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair; Blest Isle!
With matchless beauty crown’d,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.
The men of E Company had grown up together, playing cricket for the same village team, chasing the same girls and drinking in the same pubs and inns. And now, as members of the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, they were about to go to war together.
It was during the hot August of 1914 when groups of friends, team-mates and work colleagues from across Britain eagerly enlisted to fight the Bosch. But what the soldiers of E Company, 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had in common was something rather unusual: they all belonged to the staff of the Royal Estate at Sandringham.
The company had been formed in 1908 at the personal request of their employer, King Edward VII. He asked Frank Beck, his land agent to undertake the task. This he did, recruiting more than 100 part-time soldiers or territorials.
As was the custom in the territorial battalions of the day, military rank was dictated by social class. Members of the local gentry like Frank Beck and his two nephews became the officers. The estate’s foremen, butlers, head gamekeepers and head gardeners were the NCOs. The farm labourers, grooms and household servants made up the rank and file.
What happened to the Sandringhams during the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in the middle of their very first battle, on the afternoon of August 12, 1915? One minute the men, led by their commanding officer, Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp, were charging bravely against the Turkish enemy. The next they had disappeared. Their bodies were never found. There were no survivors. They did not turn up as prisoners of war. – They simply vanished!
General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander-in-Chief in Gallipoli, appeared as puzzled as everyone else. He reported: ‘there happened a very mysterious thing’. Explaining that during the attack, the Norfolks had drawn somewhat ahead of the rest of the British line’. He went on ‘The fighting grew hotter, and the ground became more wooded and broken.’ But Colonel Beauchamp with 16 officers and 250 men, ‘still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before him.’ ‘Among these ardent souls was part of a fine company enlisted from the King’s Sandringham estates. Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight and sound. Not one of them ever came back.’ Their families had nothing to go on but rumours and a vague official telegram stating that their loved ones had been ‘reported missing’.
King George V could gain no further information other than that the Sandringhams had conducted themselves with ‘ardour and dash’. Queen Alexandra made inquiries via the American ambassador in Constantinople to discover whether any of the missing men might be in Turkish prisoner-of-war camps. Grieving families contacted the Red Cross and placed messages in the papers, hoping for news of their sons and husbands from returning comrades. But all to no avail.
So what really happened to men of Sandringham?
Along with thousands of other troops, the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment had set sail from Liverpool on July 30, 1915, aboard the luxury liner Aquitania.
At 54, Captain Beck need not have led his men to war. But despite his age, he was determined to do so.
‘I formed them,’ he said bravely, ‘How could I leave them now? The lads will expect me to go with them; besides I promised their wives and children I would look after them’.
The battalion landed at Suvla Bay on August 10, in the thick of the fighting, and was immediately ordered inland.
Officers and men were being continually shot down, not only by rifle fire from the enemy in front of them, but by snipers.
The climate was broiling by day and freezing at night. Men were already suffering from dysentery and from the side-effects of inoculations and seasick tablets administered during the voyage. There was a desperate lack of water – two pints were supposed to last each man three days.
Then, on August 12, just two days after they had arrived in this arid, hostile land, the 5th Battalion was told it was to attack that afternoon. The orders were confused. Some thought the plan was to clear away the enemy’s forward positions in preparation for the main British assault. Others believed their target was the village of Anafarta Saga on the ridge ahead of them. The officers were handed maps, which they soon discovered did not even show the area they were supposed to be attacking.
Having been in the baking sun all day the inexperienced troops were thirsty and scared – and now they were to launch a major assault on a well-armed enemy in broad daylight and with little cover. Only Private George Carr, a 14-year-old Norfolk lad, was to survive the bloodshed of that afternoon. Exhausted by the battle, he was saved by a stretcher-bearer called Herbert Saul, a pacifist who refused to carry a rifle on principle.
At 4.15-pm whistles blew and the Norfolks began to advance, led by Colonel Beauchamp, waving his cane and shouting: ‘On the Norfolks, on.’ Captain Beck was at the head of the Sandringhams. Even though they were still a mile-and-a-half from the Turkish positions, the order to fix bayonets and to advance at the double was given. The slaughter began immediately as the Turkish artillery trained in on the advancing British soldiers. By the time the Norfolks reached the enemy lines they were already exhausted.
A desperate battle ensued, officers and men being cut down all around by snipers hidden in the trees. Everywhere officers and men of the battalion were dying. A shell landed close to Frank Beck. He was last seen sitting under a tree with his head on one side, either dead or simply too tired to continue.In the midst of the bloodshed, Colonel Beauchamp continued to advance through a wood towards the Turks’ main positions, leading a band of 16 officers and 250 men. Among them were the Sandringhams.
Eventually, the Colonel was spotted, standing with another officer in a farm on the far side of the wood. ‘Now boys,’ he shouted, ‘ we’ve got the village. Let’s hold it.’ That was the last anyone saw or heard of Beauchamp, or any of his men, including the Sandringhams. They had all disappeared, amid the smoke and flying bullets, never to be seen again.
In 1918 when the war had ended, the War Graves Commission searched the Gallipoli battlefields. Of the 36,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the campaign, 13,000 rested in unidentified graves, another 14,000 bodies were simply never found. During one of these searches a Norfolks regimental cap badge was found buried in the sand along with the corpses of a number of soldiers. The find was reported to the Rev Charles Pierre-Point Edwards, MC, who was in Gallipoli on a War Office mission to find out what had happened to the 5th Norfolks. It was likely that he had been sent there by Queen Alexandra.
Edwards’ examination of the area where the badge had been found uncovered the remains of 180 bodies; 122 of them were identifiable from their shoulder flashes as men of the 5th Norfolks. The bodies had been found scattered over an area of one square mile, to the rear of the Turkish front line ‘lying most thickly round the ruins of a small farm’. This, Edwards concluded, was probably the farm at which Colonel Beauchamp had last been seen. The surrounding area was wooded, the only area in the Suvla vicinity that matched with General Hamilton’s description of a forest.
Four years later came news from Turkey of a gold fob-watch, looted from the body of a British officer in Gallipoli. It was Frank Beck’s. The watch was later presented to Margeretta Beck, Frank’s daughter, on her wedding day.
And so it is here that the story of the Vanished Battalion might have ended.
Many years later, in April 1965, at the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, a former New Zealand sapper called Frederick Reichardt issued an extraordinary testimony. Supported by three other veterans, Reichardt claimed to have witnessed the supernatural disappearance of the 5th Norfolks in August 1915.
According to Reichardt, on the afternoon in question he and his comrades had watched a formation of ‘six or eight’ loaf-shaped clouds hovering over the area where the Norfolks were pressing home their attack. Into one of these low lying clouds marched the advancing battalion. An hour or so later, the cloud ‘very unobtrusively’ rose and joined the other clouds overhead and sailed off, leaving no trace of the soldiers behind them.
This strange story first appeared in a New Zealand publication. Despite its unreliable provenance and inconsistencies (Reichardt got the wrong date, the wrong battalion and the wrong location), this version of events captured popular imagination at that time. More recent and detailed research for a BBC television documentary in 1991 called “All the King’s Men.” suggested that Reichardt’s story of the battalion-lifting cloud may have been a little confused. More significantly the BBC research unearthed two new important items of evidence.
The first piece of new evidence was an account of a conversation with the Rev Pierre-Point Edwards some years after the war, which revealed an extraordinary detail he omitted from his official report about the fate of the 5th Norfolks – namely, that every one of the bodies he found had been shot in the head.
It was known that the Turks did not like taking prisoners. This was confirmed by the second piece of evidence, which told the story of Arthur Webber, who fought with the Yarmouth Company of the 5th Norfolks during the battle of August 12, 1915.
According to his sister in-law, Arthur was shot in the face. As he lay injured on the ground, he heard the Turkish soldiers shooting and bayoneting the wounded and the prisoners around him. Only the intervention of a German officer saved his life. His comrades were all executed on the spot.
Arthur Webber died in 1969, aged 86, still with the Turkish sniper’s bullet in his head.
Can the true fate of the 5th Battalion now be more fully explained?
In that after their bold dash through the wood on the 12th of August…
Colonel Beauchamp and the Sandringhams were overwhelmed by their Turkish enemies…
They were either captured or they surrendered…
The Turks took no prisoners…
So they were butchered…and buried.
Is this what became of the Vanished Battalion?
Update: Steve Smith, author of ‘And They Loved Not Their Lives Unto Death: The History of Worstead and Westwick’s War Memorial and War Dead’, has written an article “5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment – The True Story” which is reproduced on this site – it may shed some light on the fate of the Vanished Battalion.
For about 30 months during WW1, the names of Robert Leckie and South Denes at Yarmouth were intrinsically linked. He, a Scottish born Canadian pilot and South Denes being the site of the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) from where Leckie and some 30 aircraft and air crew played an exceptional roll in keeping the enemy at bay. Whilst at South Denes, Robert Leckie set course to become a highly decorated officer and later, when the war had ended, was to carve out a distinguished career in military flying. As for Great Yarmouth’s RNAS station, she was destined to be all but forgotten and long wiped off the map. Here’s their story:
Long before his defiant speeches helped rally a country at risk from the Nazi menace in World War II, Winston Churchill played a key role in establishing an earlier barrier to German invaders – one in which Great Yarmouth had a vital role to play. Churchill was responsible for the setting up of Great Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at South Denes as part of a national network of stations founded in 1912 to run alongside the new Royal Flying Corps. These stations were charged to counter the perceived growing German menace and their main “naval” role (ignoring the service’s direct field “support” of the Royal Flying Corp) was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines and attacking enemy coastal territory. It would, during its time, systematically search thousands of square miles of the North Sea for enemy aircraft of any kind and U-boats.
At Yarmouth the site chosen for a regional RNAS station was on the South Denes, an area outside the town’s walls which had had a variety of uses over the centuries, from cattle grazing to public hangings, horse racing to a place for fishermen to dry their nets. It took a little while but the Admiralty eventually earmarked this area after having searched for over a year for suitable land where hydro-aeroplanes could be handled and launched. Gradually, the site witnessed the arrival of concrete hard-standings, service buildings, hangars and slipways.
Commissioned on April 13 1913, the Yarmouth Station grew rapidly, taking on civilians later that year who would be responsible for the care, maintenance and repair of machinery; they would also act as chauffeurs, storekeepers or telephone operators. Then in 1914 came seven officers, two warrant officers, 29 ratings and three pensioners to play their part on one of only eight airfields in Britain, ready-built to combat aerial threats. Interestedly, naval terms would apply; personnel not living on-site were called ‘The Ship’s Company’ and would be treated well, with free transport between their lodgings and the base. As for the public, they were forbidden to approach the site when aircraft movements were likely, but could visit the planes on Sunday afternoons if no ‘emergency’ was declared.
When fully operational, the Yarmouth Station’s 30 planes would go on to fill its potential for combating raids by airborne Zeppelins, spotting German surface raiders and playing a major part in submarine detection. Unlike some RNAS stations, Yarmouth was now equipped to act as both a land and a flying boat base with seaplanes initially launched by trolleys. Later, two slipways of heavy sleepers pinned to beach-driven piles were built, one at each end and intentionally placed opposite aircraft sheds, to aid arriving and departing aircraft. The base was also supported by additional landing ground facilities at satellite bases in Norfolk at Bacton, Burgh Castle, Holt (Bayfield) and Sedgeford, plus Aldeburgh and Covehithe in Suffolk. At the time, the Admiralty had also planned to take over Hickling Broad and use it as a reserve flying boat base and contractors duly built a concrete slipway, but this was never completed. In the event, Hickling was only used during the war for two emergency landings, but a separate arrangement allowed seaplanes destined for Yarmouth to land on the calmer waters of the broad if the sea were too rough. That arrangement is still in force!
A stark reminder of what Yarmouth was up against was when the town became the victim of the first-ever aerial attack on the UK by a Zeppelin airship; this was during the early evening of January 19 1915 when two townsfolk were killed. The South Denes planes, just a mile or two away, were unable to intercept because they could not match the airship’s cruising height. The Station would have to wait until November 27 1916 for its first success when a Zeppelin was shot down over the sea near Lowestoft, the date of which coming close to the moment when Robert Leckie arrived at the station and yet to make his mark and be known as one of “the Zeppelin killers from Canada”.
Robert Leckie was born in Glasgow on 16 April 1890 into a family of weavers who emigrated to Canada. When old enough, Leckie was initially commissioned into the 1st Central Ontario Regiment, and in late 1915 paid 600 Canadian Dollars to begin flying training at the Curtiss Flying School on Toronto Island. However, he had completed only three hours of training in the Curtiss Model F. flying boat at Hanlan’s Point, when the school was forced to close. At the urging of Sir Charles Kingsmill, the Chief of the Canadian Naval staff, the Royal Navy agreed to accept half of the class and Leckie was sent to England. On 6 December 1915, he was commissioned as a probationary temporary flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service, and posted to Royal Navy Air Station Chingford, for training. On 10 May 1916, having accumulated 33 hours and 3 minutes flying time, he was granted a Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate and was then sent to RNAS Felixstowe for further training in flying boats. He was confirmed in his rank of flight sub-lieutenant in June, and in August was posted to RNAS Great Yarmouth situated at South Denes.
14 May 1917: Leckie’s First Success:
On 26 April 1917 the Admiralty put a new tracking system in place to detect Zeppelins. As Zeppelins patrolled, their courses were methodically plotted by the British wireless interception stations and, if they approached within 150 miles of the English Coast, their position, course, and speed were communicated direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases. Local commanders then had discretion to send out aircraft – keeping them up to date with the Zeppelin’s position by wireless.
Soon after dawn on the 14 May 1917, in misty weather, news was received of a Zeppelin near the Terschelling Light Vessel. A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’, manned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Leckie, Chief Petty Officer Vernon Frank Whatling, and Air Mechanic J Laycock, was sent out from Yarmouth. As pilot, Galpin took off from South Denes at 03.30 a.m. in poor weather with heavy rain and low cloud. After eighty miles, the flying-boat shut down the wireless to lessen the chances of discovery. At 04.45am, the weather cleared as the aircraft approached the Dutch island of Texel, then further on, crew spotted the Terschelling Light Vessel and at 04.48 the Zeppelin L 22 came into view at a distance of about 10–15 miles. Immediately, the Curtiss increased speed and gained height, and Leckie took over the controls as Galpin manned the twin Lewis guns mounted in the bow.
Leckie managed to approach to within half a mile before his Curtiss was spotted and the Zeppelin attempted to take evasive action but as events turned out, it was too late. Leckie made a skilful approach and dived on the Zeppelin until he was twenty feet below and fifty feet to starboard of her gondolas. Galpin then opened fire from the two Lewis guns in the forward cock-pit, but after a burst of fire both guns jammed, one after the other. Leckie turned the aircraft away and an attempt was made to clear the guns, however, no second attack was necessary. As the flying-boat turned, the L22 Zeppelin began to glow and within seconds she was falling in flames. Her skeleton plunged upright into the sea, leaving no trace in the dawning light save a mound of black ash on the surface of the water. The Curtiss returned to South Denes base by 7:50 a.m and they found only two bullet holes, in the left upper wing and the hull amidships, where the Germans had returned fire. In his Report to the Commander of Yarmouth RNAS, Galpin stated “……..I would submit to your notice that the success of the attack was due to the good judgment and skill of Flt Sub Lt Leckie…….” On 22 June, Leckie was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in downing the L 22; on 30 June, Leckie was promoted to flight lieutenant.
Leckie’s Subsequent Successes:
The next success for Leckie was at 10.35 a.m. on 5 September 1917, again flying a Curtiss H-12 from South Denes, under Squadron Commander Vincent Nicholl. They were accompanied by a de Havillan DH.4 biplane, and were again heading for Terschelling. However, they were only part-way to their destination when they unexpectedly encountered the Zeppelins L 44 and L 46 accompanied by support ships. The British aircrafts were hit by enemy fire, but pressed their attack on the L 44. Nicholl noted several hits on the Zeppelin from his guns, but it did not catch fire. Leckie then turned the aircraft to attack the L 46, but it had turned rapidly away and was out of range, as was the L 44 by the time he turned back. Both British aircraft had been hit, and the DH.4’s engine soon failed. The Curtiss had also been hit in one engine and one wing was badly damaged.
The DH.4 was forced to ditch into the sea, and Nicholl ordered Leckie to put the aircraft down to rescue the two crew. However, now with six men aboard, damaged, and in heavy seas Leckie was unable to take off again. Some 75 miles from the English coast, the aircraft began to taxi towards home. Their radio was waterlogged, but they did have four homing pigeons. Nicholl attached messages to the birds giving their position and course and sent them off at intervals. After four hours the aircraft ran out of fuel, and began to drift, so they improvised a sea anchor from empty fuel cans to steady it. That night the damaged wing tip broke off, and each man then had to spend two hours at a time outside balanced on the opposite wing to keep the broken wing from filling with water and dragging the aircraft under.
After three days at sea, the six men were suffering badly with no food and only two gallons of drinking water, gained from draining the radiators of their water-cooled engines. Finally, at dawn on 8 September, as search operations were about to be called off, one of the pigeons was found dead, from exhaustion, by the coastguard station at Walcot, barely 20 miles north of the RNAS base at South Denes. Shortly after midday Leckie and crew were rescued by the torpedo gunboat HMS Halcyon. As for the pigeon, it would not be forgotten. The bird was preserved and kept in the officers’ mess at RNAS Yarmouth until the base closed after the war; later it would find a home at the RAF Museum Hendon where it is now on display. A brass plate on the display case bears the inscription “A very gallant gentleman”.On 31 December 1917 Leckie was appointed to flight commander.
While on patrol on 20 February 1918, Leckie, now a flight commander, spotted an enemy submarine on the surface and attacked it with bombs, seeing one strike the vessel as it dived, leaving a large oil slick. Leckie was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 17 May 1918, only to learn much later that he had not actually sunk it.
On 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, and Leckie transferred to the new service with the rank of lieutenant (temporary captain) whilst remaining at South Denes. By the 8th of April he was promoted to the temporary rank of major.
On 4 June 1918 Leckie led an offensive patrol of four Felixstowe F.2 A flying boats and a Curtiss H.12 towards the Haaks Light Vessel off the Dutch coast. They saw no enemy aircraft until one of the F.2A’s was forced down with a broken fuel feed-pipe. At that moment, five enemy seaplanes appeared, but seemed more interested in attacking the crippled F2 as it taxied towards to the Dutch coast where the crew eventually burned their aircraft before being interned. Then more German seaplanes then appeared and Leckie promptly led his small force into a head on attack; a dogfight ensued which lasted for 40 minutes. Despite further mechanical difficulties with two other F2A’s, necessitating further makeshift repairs while in the middle of the action, two German aircraft were shot down. In addition, four were badly damaged causing the Germans to break off the action, for the loss of one F.2A and the Curtiss – its crew to survive but interned by the Dutch; one man was killed. Leckie’s force returned to South Denes where, in his report, Leckie was to bitterly remark “…..these operations were robbed of complete success entirely through faulty petrol pipes…… It is obvious that our greatest foes are not the enemy……”
Two months later Leckie was involved in arguably his most famous sortie. It took place on the afternoon of 5 August 1918 after a squadron of five Zeppelins had taken off from Friedrichshafen for the east coast of England and a night raid against Norwich, Boston and the Humber Estuary. The leading airship, L 70, commanded by Johann von Lossnitzer, had on board Peter Strasser, chief commander of the German Imperial Navy Zeppelins, the main force operating bombing campaigns from 1915 to 1917. He, together with everyone else on board, were unaware of what was in store for them and their aircraft; they were probably also unaware that the airship squadron had been spotted while out at sea by the Lenman Tail lightship which signalled its course and position to the Admiralty who then passed the details on to South Denes for action.
The first to respond to this notification was Major Egbert “Bertie” Cadbury, (member of the Cadbury family) who raced to the only aircraft available, a DH.4, and jumped into the pilot’s seat while Leckie, who was close behind, occupied the observer/gunner’s position. After about an hour they spotted the L 70 and attacked, with Leckie firing eighty rounds of incendiary bullets into her. Fire rapidly consumed the airship as it plummeted into the sea just north of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. None of the 23 men aboard survived. Cadbury and Leckie and another pilot, Lieutenant Ralph Edmund Keys, then attacked and damaged another Zeppelin, which promptly turned tail and headed for home. This was to be the last airship raid over Great Britain. As for the three combatants, they each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.
A few days later, on 11 August 1918 Leckie took part in another operation over the North Sea. Zeppelins often shadowed British naval ships, while carefully operating at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft guns or flying boats could achieve, and out of range of land based aircraft, so the Harwich Light Cruiser Force set out with a Sopwith Camel lashed to a decked lighter towed by the destroyer HMS Redoubt. When Leckie’s reconnaissance flight reported an approaching Zeppelin, the Redoubt steamed at full speed into the wind, allowing the Camel’s pilot Lieutenant Culley to take off with only a five-yard run. Culley climbed to 18,800 feet, approached the L 53 out of the sun, and attacked with his twin Lewis guns, setting the airship on fire.
As the war entered its final months, the RNAS was absorbed into the newly formed RAF and on 20 August 1918 Leckie was appointed commander of the newly formed No. 228 Squadron, flying the Curtis H-12 and Felixstowe F.2A out of Great Yarmouth. Within three months the Armistice brought the fighting to an end and on 31 March 1919 Robert Leckie said his farewells to South Denes when he retired from the RAF to pursue a career in a variety of military flying roles. He died in 1975.
As for the Yarmouth Station, it lasted until late in 1920 whilst most RNAS sites – including Burgh Castle, Sedgeford, Holt, Aldeburgh and Covehithe closed by September 1919. South Denes was then used for commercial flights until the 1930s when the area became the South Denes Camping and Caravan site. New buildings were constructed and one former station building was to remain even beyond closure of the camp site in 1990. Then a new era began and any trace of what had gone before was finally buried by thousands of tons of sand, stone and concrete to form Yarmouth’s new Outer Harbour complex.
In June 2009, Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station was recognised with the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the men who protected the nation from the Kaiser’s air force and navy. This is outside 25 Regent Street, the RNAS regional headquarters from 1913 to 1920.
Great Yarmouth boasts one of the most distinctive and unusual of any coats-of-arms to be found and its origin goes back to a decisive but long-forgotten naval battle, plus a King’s gratitude to a town that gave so generously of its ships and men for what turned out to be the 1340 Battle of Sluys and the start of the Hundred Year’s War.
With no dedicated fleet of warships King Edward III had to assemble hundreds of merchant vessels, called Cogs, for his assault on northern France; the majority of these were supplied by Great Yarmouth. This assault was the precursor to what became known as The Hundred Years War. It is said that Great Yarmouth provided King Edward III with a total of 1,075 mariners and 43 ships, whereas London only provided 25 ships. The fierce sea battle that ensued at Sluys, then the best harbour in Europe, saw the English overwhelm a combined force and destroying French naval capability for some years. This victory allowed the King to land with little opposition and head off an invasion of England. Afterwards, Edward was gracious enough to not only hail the contribution of men and ships from Yarmouth, but also to allow the town to half its own coat-of-arms of three silver herrings and add his own three lions; thus elevating Great Yarmouth’s standing and creating an arresting heraldic emblem.
The Cause of the Hundred Year War:
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals to the kings of France. The status of the English king’s French fiefs was a major source of conflict between the two monarchies throughout the Middle Ages. French monarchs systematically sought to check the growth of English power, stripping away lands as the opportunity arose. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. The Gascons had their own language and customs and a large proportion of the red wine that they produced was shipped to England in a profitable trade. This trade provided the English king with much of his revenue. The Gascons preferred their relationship to be with the distant English king who left them alone, rather than with a French king who would interfere in their affairs. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip’s Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip’s hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years’ War, which was to run one hundred and sixteen years.
The Opposing Forces: Initially the French had the superior fleet, their galleys were ideal for swift passage across the Channel under sail or oars, could penetrate shallow harbours and were highly manoeuvrable and ideal for raiding or ship-to-ship combat. The huge French fleet was supplemented by galleys from Genoa and they were able to disrupt English commercial shipping, particularly that of the Gascon wine and the Flemish wool trades, as well as raiding the south and eastern coasts of England at will.
There was no English Royal Navy in the 14th Century and the English did not have a purpose-built navy. The principle type of English merchant vessel was the Cog, which was clinker-built, fitted with a single mast and a square-rigged single sail, and had a deep draught and round hull. They ranged from about 15 to 25 meters (49 to 82 feet) in length, had a beam of 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) and the largest could carry up to about 200 tons. Edward requisitioned a number of these ships from the merchant fleet and converted them into warships by adding wooden “castles” at the bow and stern, and a crow’s nest platform at the masthead, from which archers could use bows or drop stones on to enemy craft alongside. The high freeboard of the Cog made it superior in close combat to the French galley allowing the English to look down on their French adversaries.
Edward III assembled his fleet in the River Orwell and River Stour near Harwich. He made the Cog ‘Thomas’ his flagship and set sail on 22 June 1340 and was approaching Sluys by the afternoon of the following day. The English fleet anchored off Blankenberge and that evening King Edward sent Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Stephen Lambkin to reconnoitre the French fleet. They found the French fleet anchored at the entrance of the Zwin estuary and ranged in three tightly packed lines that included the great cog Christopher, a captured English prize.
The French fleet is believed to have been around 200 ships; Edward in a letter to his son counts 180 sails and contemporary French documents record the fleet size as 204 vessels. Part of the fleet consisted of Genoese galleys serving as mercenaries under the command of Admiral Pietro Barbavera and the French fleet was under the command of the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, admiral for the king of France, and Nicolas Béhuchet, the Constable of France.
The size of the English fleet is not accurately known as no contemporary records exist. It is believed that the English fleet that set sail from the Orwell consisted of 160 ships and that these were joined by the northern squadron led by Sir Robert Morley. In addition, King Edward’s Flemish allies are also reported to have joined the battle and it is thought therefore that the English fleet was somewhere between 120 and 320 ships in total.
The Battle: Forget ships that fired cannons from a distance, this was close-up combat of the most savage kind with boats lining up against each other so that men-at-arms could hack at their adversaries, throwing the survivors overboard. In fact, the task force of merchant ships, called Cogs, were not designed for warfare or manned by naval personnel. This made being a seafarer in the middle ages a risky and violent business, at a time when the King required maritime towns, such as Great Yarmouth, to maintain ships on standby for battle.
King Edward sent these ships against the French in groups of three; two ships were crammed with archers and the third full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would close on a French vessel and the archers would rain arrows down on the enemy’s decks. The English archers, with their long bows, could accurately shoot 20 arrows per minute at a range of up to 270 metres (300 yards), whereas the Genoese crossbowmen could only manage two bolts per minute and had a lot shorter range. While the enemy vessel was so engaged, the ship carrying the men-at-arms would come alongside and the men-at-arms would board and seize it. Because of how tightly the French vessels were packed together, the battle became essentially a land battle at sea.
The English managed to board and seize many French vessels after fiercely contested hand-to-hand fighting. The Genoese crossbowmen managed to successfully board and capture two English ships. French sources asserted that Nicolas Béhuchet wounded King Edward III during the fighting, but there was no evidence, other than a legendary one, that a personal encounter between King Edward and the French commander. It is, however, a fact that the King was indeed wounded during the battle by either an arrow or a crossbow bolt.
Nicolas Béhuchet’s tactics proved disastrous for the French, as it allowed the English to attack their left flank while leaving the rest of the fleet paralyzed. In a letter to his son, King Edward said that the enemy made a noble defence “all that day and the night after”. By the end of the battle, the French fleet had been broken at the cost of only two English ships captured, and the water was reported to be thick with blood and corpses. The number of English losses is unknown, the French are thought to have lost between 16,000 and 18,000 and virtually all of their vessels were captured.
The Aftermath of the Battle: After the battle King Edward went on to lay siege to Tournai, a Flemish city that had been loyal to Philip VI of France. Edward and his forces reached Tournai on 23 July 1340 and laid siege trapping, apart from the inhabitants, a sizable French garrison inside. The siege dragged on and Philip VI with a relieving army drew closer, while Edward was running out of funds to keep his army in the field. At the same time, Tournai was running out of food. It was King Edward’s mother-in-law, Jeanne of Valois (who was also Philip’s sister), who visited King Edward in his tent on 22 September and begged for peace. She had already made the same plea in front of Philip VI and consequently a truce, known as the Truce of Espléchin, was made on 25 September 1340 – thus bringing the siege to an end without anyone losing face.
The ‘Norwich: History & Guide’ makes reference to the 25th February 1643 when the Conesford Gate in the City was blocked, as were the St Giles, Pockthorpe and St Agustine’s Gates. It was simply a precaution.
Norwich’s role during the English Civil War, (22 August 1642 to 3 September 1651), was principally to supply troops and money to the Parliamentary forces operating elsewhere in the Eastern Region. However, discussions were held about constructing several bastions against the river. The intention was probably to create a star-shaped defence on the contemporary Dutch model. There was no direct threat to the City but 150 Dragoons (mounted musketeers) were raised for Oliver Cromwell at Cambridge. The horses were at least partly seized from the properties of Royalist sympathisers in the City.
During March, more volunteers were raised for Parliament and the young men and girls of Norwich raised £240 to equip the ‘Maiden Troop’ of Cromwell’s cavalry under Captain Robert Swallow, who became the eleventh troop of Ironsides. He served in that capacity down to the absorption of the troop into Edward Whalley’s regiment of horse in the New Model Army in spring 1645, when he initially became a captain in Fairfax’s regiment of horse, but in summer 1645 he moved as captain to Whalley’s New Model regiment of horse, becoming its Major by the end of 1646. In 1659-60 Swallow briefly commanded the regiment but was removed at the Restoration.
By July all threats seemed to be lessening and the Gates were re-opened. Norwich was by no means united in its opposition to Charles I and at the end of 1643 a list was made of 432 Royalists suspects amongst the principal citizens because the City feared a subsequent attack by loyal Royalist gentry.
The Model Regiment:
Cromwell first mustered a troop of cavalry (then referred to as “horse”) at Huntingdon in Huntingdonshire, on 29 August 1642, early in the Civil War. John Desborough was quartermaster. The troop was late in being organised, and arrived too late to participate in the Battle of Edgehill, the first pitched-battle of the war. Cromwell however did witness the defeat of the Parliamentarian horse at the battle and wrote to fellow Parliamentarian leader John Hampden,
“Your troopers are most of them old decayed servingmen and tapsters; and their [the Royalists’] troopers are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons and persons of quality; do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows [as ours] will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that have honour and courage and resolution in them?”
It is evident that Cromwell’s answer to his own question lay in religious conviction. Early in 1643, he was given a commission as colonel and expanded his troop into a full regiment in the newly formed Army of the Eastern Association, under the command of Lord Grey of Warke and then the Earl of Manchester. By 11 September that year, he referred to them in a letter to his cousin Oliver St. John as a “lovely company”. A champion of the “godly”, Cromwell became notorious for appointing men of comparatively humble origins but stoutly-held v Puritan beliefs as officers, who would then attract men of similar background and leanings to the regiment. He wrote to the Earl of Manchester, who disagreed with this policy,
“I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else. I honour a gentleman that is so indeed.”
On 28 July 1643, the regiment took part in the Battle of Gainsborough, where Royalist cavalry were defeated. One of the troop captains, James Berry, is stated to have killed the Royalist commander, Sir Charles Cavendish, a relation of the Marquess of Newcastle (Commander-in-Chief of the Royalist forces in the North). By April, 1644, after two years of war, Cromwell’s unit had grown into a “double” regiment of no less than 14 troops. (A regiment normally had only 6 troops). Cromwell by this time was Lieutenant General of the Horse in the Parliamentarian Army of the Eastern Association, and the regiment would be routinely commanded by its Lieutenant Colonel, Cromwell’s cousin Edward Whalley. The regiment played a major part in the victory over the Royalists at the Battle of Marston Moor, where the discipline of Cromwell’s wing of horse was decisive. Where a victorious wing of Royalist cavalry scattered in search of plunder, Cromwell’s men rallied after defeating their immediate opponents, and then swept the disordered Royalist armies from the field. Captain Valentine Walton, Cromwell’s nephew, died of wounds after a cannon shot smashed his leg during the battle.
It was a different story by the time of the Second Battle of Newbury later that year. The Parliamentarian high command of Sir William Waller, the Earl of Manchester, Sir William Balfour and Cromwell decided to split their large force into two. Cromwell, the Eastern and London Association Cavalry and the Southern Association headed across the river and toward Donnington Castle in the West. The regiment was part of the first attack on the King’s western forces under Goring and Astley, but was beaten back and had to be relieved by Cromwell’s fellow commander, Sir William Balfour, and his London horse.
Template for the New Model Army: Cromwell’s double regiment was later split into two regiments, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s and Edward Whalley’s, which became the nucleus of the New Model Army‘s cavalry. Shortly before the Battle of Naseby, Cromwell was reappointed Lieutenant General of Horse in the army, and later became its commander. “Ironsides” seems to have become the term for all cavalry in the army, regardless of their origin.
Two “divisions” i.e. half-regiments of three troops each, one from each of Fairfax’s and Whalley’s regiments, under Major Christopher Bethel and Major John Desborough, mounted a remarkable charge at the Battle of Langport, where they galloped up a narrow lane and attacked the Royalist Army of Lord Goring in front, putting the entire army to flight.
Although the phrase “Ironside” suggests heavily armoured men, Cromwell’s troops were equipped in the common cavalry style of the day, termed the harquebusier, with armour limited to back- and breastplate and “pot” helmet. It does seem that they presented a uniform appearance which contrasted with that of the Cavalier horse, which became increasingly individual during the war through shortage of equipment or personal choice.
As Puritans, the Ironsides often attributed their glory in battle to God. Their religious beliefs extended to the field where they adhered to strict ethical codes. In quarters, they did not drink or gamble. They did not partake in the traditional spoils of war and did not rape, or pillage defeated opponents (although their religious zeal sometimes led them to be merciless to Catholic enemies).
Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.
During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.
In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.
As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.
The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.
According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………
Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.
A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”
Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:
“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.
For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.
The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”
Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.
Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.
So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.
(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.
Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.
Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.
The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.
The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”
When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.
Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.
When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.
Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.
In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.
Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.
It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.
It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.
By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.
The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.
With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.
When studying a map of Norfolk & Suffolk, the number of coastal locations including those with ports or harbours, soon becomes apparent. Some have past connections with very famous people or famous events, an obvious example perhaps being Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, now inland but once, also a port and the birthplace of Horatio Nelson. Or Burnham Overy perhaps, where Nelson first learned to sail a boat, but a few miles further down is Wells-next-the Sea, now a noted fishing port but once regularly visited by colliers, coasters and grain-carrying vessels as well. But how many people know of John Fryer, born in Wells on 15th August 1753 and why he became a famous name in Norfolk’s history?
Educated locally, John Fryer then acquired a keen interest in the sea, joining the Royal Navy at an early age and becoming a Master of the Third Rate, in 1781. He was then serving aboard HMS Camel, a 44-gunner vessel (previously named HMS Mediator). After a few more years at sea, Fryer moved to the HMAV Bounty, subsequently made famous by the mutiny aboard her, on 28 April 1789 which has since been commemorated by books, films, and popular songs.
The Bounty began life as the collier Bethia, built in 1784 at Blaydes shipyard in Hull and costing £1,950. But on 26th May 1787, she was purchased by the Royal Navy for £ 2,600, for a single mission during which she would travel from Britain to Tahiti and collect some breadfruit plants. These would be transported to the West Indies, where hopefully, they would grow well enough and also become a cheap source of food, for the slaves there. So during 1787, the Bethia was refitted at Deptford and renamed Bounty, as a relatively small three-masted and fully-rigged sailing ship of 215 tons. After conversion, she mounted only four4-pounders (2 kg cannon) and ten swivel guns. Her ‘great cabin’ was converted to house the potted breadfruit plants, and gratings were added to the upper deck, for ventilation and her complement would be 46 officers and men.
Meanwhile on 20th August 1787, John Fryer was appointed Sailing Master of the Bounty by the Admiralty, with Fletcher Christianas Master’s Mate and William Bligh as Captain. Little happened until 23rd December 1787, when the ship sailed from Britain for Tahiti. Then on 10th January 1788, Captain William Bligh put his crew on three watches, giving one of them to Christian and on 2nd March, ordered that Christian be promoted to Acting Lieutenant. Some speculated this fuelled the ill-will which later developed between Fryer and Bligh. When the voyage began, Bligh highly approved of John Fryer, his Sailing Master: “The Master is a very good man, and gives me every satisfaction.” he said. But his feelings soon changed, most likely because the Master was not a ‘yes-man’. He had strong opinions of his own and although he was not as sensitive to insults as Christian, Fryer was conscious of his dignity and competence and made Bligh aware in no uncertain terms, that he would not take things “lying down.” Despite this, John Fryer remained loyal, accompanying Bligh to Timor, but during the outward voyage, Bligh demoted the ship’s sailing master, John Fryer, replacing him with Fletcher Christian. This seriously damaged their relationship and Fryer would later claim Bligh’s act was entirely personal.
When the Bounty and 46 crew sailed from Timor, the unusual consignment greatly reduced the officers’ cabin space and almost added ‘an arboretum’ to the quarter deck undermining Bligh’s power to command as the space he controlled as captain had also been affected. Modification of the ship even meant there were too many men in too little space for too long a period of time. Tension increased en route and finally boiled over when the prospect of life in a Tahitian paradise seemed possible/ After this, came the famous “Mutiny on the Bounty” of 28th April 1789, led by Fletcher Christian against the commanding officer William Bligh. But John Fryer was the only officer who forcefully attempted talking Christian out of his hasty decision. When that failed, he made an earnest, but equally unsuccessful attempt to mediate between Christian and Bligh.
Finally, he was among those who forcefully demanded the loyalists be given the Bounty’s launch instead of one of two other boats which were unseaworthy. At one point Christian pressed his bayonet against Fryer’s chest, saying he would run him through if he advanced one inch further. John Fryer had the interesting position of being a strong critic of both William Bligh and mutiny leader, Fletcher Christian, even at one time accusing Bligh of favouring Christian. Despite his anger at Bligh, Fryer did not support the mutiny. Bligh’s account of this vilified Fryer (vilified means to slander or speak ill of someone), who merely gave fair evidence at Bligh’s court-martial. Edward Christian, Fletcher’s brother, was assisted by Fryer in publishing a counterweight to Bligh’s version.
Bounty had finally reached Tahiti on 26 October 1788, after ten months at sea and following the famous mutiny, eighteen mutineers finally set Captain Bligh and 18 of the 22 crew loyal to him afloat in a small boat. The mutineers then variously settled on Pitcairn Island or in Tahiti and eventually, Fletcher Christian took the vessel to an isolated South Pacific island, which they reached in Jan 1790. There, they burned her to avoid detection and to prevent desertion. Interestingly, as a direct result of this, a colony was established and inhabitants of the 1¾ square mile Pitcairn Islands inhabitants are therefore direct descendants of the mutineers and their former Tahitian wives. Even the present-day islanders now speak a dialect, said to be a hybrid of Tahitian and 18th century English. But no reason explaining why the Mutiny ever happened at all, was ever offered. Historically, Bligh and his remaining crew of 18 made an epic and eventful journey in the small boat to Timor in the Dutch East Indies where they spent five months. Subsequently, Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny.
On retiring from the Royal Navy on 6th April 1812, John Fryer returned to his home town of Wells-Next-the-Sea where he died on 26th May, 1817 – ironically, also the same year as the death of Captain Bligh. He was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Wells but in 2000, his gravestone was moved into the main church building, on the south side. Meanwhile in the churchyard and replacing his original grave site, is now a plaque to John Fryer, Master of the Bounty.
Images related to John Fryer to be found at Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk. (c) Jamie Beckford.
That Fryer received no promotions after the Mutiny is incorrect. He rose to the rank of Post Captain and served as Commander of at least 3 ships: HMS Serapis, 1801, HMS William, 1804, and HMS Abundance, 1806. Although a Master, the title was only considered a courtesy. In more recent times, Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him in the 1984 film ’The Bounty’. A biography of Fryer was edited by Owen Rutter in 1939: John Fryer of the Bounty (Golden Cockerel Press)