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Civilians killed as German battleship bombards Great Yarmouth 100 years ago

The 6,150 ton monitor ship HMS Roberts. Armed with two 14-inch guns, two 12-pounders, one 5-pounder and one 2-pounder. A monitor ship is a name given to a warship which carries disproportionally large guns. Picture – Courtesy of Norfolk Museum Service

The 6,150 ton monitor ship HMS Roberts. Armed with two 14-inch guns, two 12-pounders, one 5-pounder and one 2-pounder. A monitor ship is a name given to a warship which carries disproportionally large guns. Picture – Courtesy of Norfolk Museum Service

Norfolk Museum Service

During the four years of the First World War, only four residents lost their lives due to the bombing of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston.

First World War. Pictured: the Royal Naval air station at South Denes. Aircraft from the base had limited success in the early months of the war, but celebrated victory in November 1916 when three biplanes combined to shoot down the Zeppelin L21 off Lowestoft. Picture: SUPPLIED First World War. Pictured: the Royal Naval air station at South Denes. Aircraft from the base had limited success in the early months of the war, but celebrated victory in November 1916 when three biplanes combined to shoot down the Zeppelin L21 off Lowestoft. Picture: SUPPLIED

Two were victims of a Zeppelin raid in January 1915, on St Peter’s Plain, the first people in this country to be killed by an air raid.

Two more civilians lost their lives in a bombardment on January 14, in 1918 – the last time Yarmouth was attacked by German forces.

This was the fifth time the town had come under attack from the enemy during the First World War; it was twice bombed by Zeppelin airships and three times bombarded by German battleships far out to sea, local historian Colin Tooke reveals in this feature he has written and researched.

The first experience the town had had of any enemy action was a few months after the war had begun, in November 1914, when it was shelled by German battleships. A similar attack happened at Easter 1916 but on both these occasions, there was no loss of life and little damage done to property - most shells either overshot the town or fell short into the sea. The target had been the port’s important submarine base.

In the third bombardment by the Germans, two residents lost their lives when a shell hit the roof of their house while they were asleep.

Torrential rain and gale force winds lashed the town on that Monday evening. Suddenly, with no warning, at 10.55pm the town was lit up as a star shell, fired from a German battleship far off the coast, slowly descended on its parachute.

In the following five minutes 50 explosive shells fell indiscriminately in and around Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, damaging property over a wide area, killing four people, two civilians and two merchant seamen, and injuring another eight. It was reported in the local paper that the five-minute bombardment was followed by a period of almost complete silence as the townsfolk, still in shock from the surprise attack, emerged onto the streets to see what had happened.

It was, however, not until daylight the following morning that the scale of the damage became apparent.

A number of houses had suffered damaged to their roofs and many windows had been blown in. The Edward Worlledge school log recorded the next day “many boys late, searching for shrapnel. Sixteen shells fell within a 400 yard radius of the school”.

In a small terraced house in St Peter’s Road, Arthur Sparks and his wife Mary Ann, both aged 53, were in bed when a shell hit the roof of the house and bricks and rafters crashed through the bedroom ceiling onto them.

Mary Ann was killed instantly, Arthur was rescued but had sustained serious injuries from which he died the following day in hospital.

The two merchant seamen killed in the same bombardment, were on a ship moored in the harbour, which had arrived from Hull that morning.

Many people in the town had lucky escapes as roofs and ceilings fell on them.

One large house on the seafront was hit by two shells, one through the roof and another on the first floor. Two shells fell in a Row area of the town.

Three or four shells fell on Gorleston, one of these finishing unexploded after striking the corner of one house, lifting the roof off another, passing through a brick wall and then through another house.

There was no response to the bombardment from the military bases in the town. The bad weather prevented any aircraft from the air station from taking off and none of the submarines based in the port were sent out because the battleships were considered to be too far away.

Monitor ship, HMS Roberts, moored in the harbour opposite Gorleston lifeboat shed since the previous bombardment, did not fire her two 14ins (36 cm) guns. The ship, specially equipped with heavy armament to protect the town, had only fired her large guns once, and that was in practice. On that occasion the explosion from the guns was so loud it shattered many windows in property on the Gorleston side of the river.

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