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When Great Yarmouth’s defences stopped German zeppelins

PUBLISHED: 15:20 07 August 2018 | UPDATED: 15:20 07 August 2018

Damage in St Peter's Plain, Yarmouth, caused by the January 1915 air raid in which two residents died. Picture: Clifford Temple

Damage in St Peter's Plain, Yarmouth, caused by the January 1915 air raid in which two residents died. Picture: Clifford Temple

Clifford Temple

This weekend marks the centenary of a wartime air raid involving Great Yarmouth which one account claims could have been a forerunner to an attack on the United States.

Decades before the Yarmouth Mercury and sister newspapers occupied this Regent Street building, it was the local HQ of the Royal Naval Air Service in the 1914-18 war - a role marked by a blue heritage plaque dedicated at a ceremony in 2009. Picture: Great Yarmouth MercuryDecades before the Yarmouth Mercury and sister newspapers occupied this Regent Street building, it was the local HQ of the Royal Naval Air Service in the 1914-18 war - a role marked by a blue heritage plaque dedicated at a ceremony in 2009. Picture: Great Yarmouth Mercury

Imagine the repercussions! The outcome would have been a changed world, not that we know today.

In August 1918, the last German raid on Britain during the Great War took place, with London the objective. Five Zeppelin airships commanded by Capt Peter Strasser headed for the capital in darkness, but their approach was spotted by lightships in the North Sea.

According to Yarmouth-based historian Colin Tooke’s 2014 book Great Yarmouth and the Great War...The Home Front, coastal defences were alerted immediately, including our South Denes air station which sent messengers into town to summon personnel to their base.

Major Egbert (Bertie) Cadbury, heir to the chocolate empire, was in the Wellington Pier Pavilion where his wife, Mary (daughter of Gorleston’s Vicar, the Rev Forbes Phillips) was singing at a charity concert. Immediately he made the short drive to his base, taking off in his De Havilland aircraft, with Captain Robert Leckie as gunner.

The Carlton Hotel/Kimberley Terrace blue plaque marking the 1914-18 war home of ace pilot Egbert Cadbury. Picture: PeggottyThe Carlton Hotel/Kimberley Terrace blue plaque marking the 1914-18 war home of ace pilot Egbert Cadbury. Picture: Peggotty

Writes Colin: “Cadbury found the L70 (Zeppelin) and was able to attack, the phosphorus bullets from Leckie’s gun tearing a great hole in the airship which plunged into the sea off North Norfolk, a blazing wreck.

“Although he then chased other airships, the altitude and cold conditions meant he was unable to attack, returning to a landing ground at Sedgeford in West Norfolk. Cadbury and Leckie were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for their actions that night.”

The other four Zeppelins abandoned their mission and scuttled back to Germany.

But regular correspondent Tom Gilbert, of Church Road, Gorleston, was intrigued to read in his latest RAF 100 Airmail Magazine that this failed attack disrupted German plans for Strasser’s L70 and two other Zeppelins “to cross the Atlantic and bomb New York.”

If that is so, the destruction of the L70 and the death of its commander, Peter Strasser, altered the course of history.

I entered journalism in 1955 at the Regent Street offices of the Yarmouth Mercury, Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News – premises now housing the UKIP offices. After working at other Norfolk branches, I returned to the building years later.

I mention this because during the First World War, our distinctive building was the headquarters of the Royal Naval Air Service which amalgamated in 1918 with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, five months before that aborted raid.

So our former offices now display a commemorative blue plaque, placed on the front wall in 2009 by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society. The recorded dates were April 1913 to November 1918, and the inscription reports: “Flying land and sea planes from South Denes, Hickling Broad and heavily involved in anti-Zeppelin warfare.”

Another adorns the Carlton Hotel/Kimberley Terrace wartime residence of Bertie Cadbury who, back in “civvie street”, rejoined the family business, eventually becoming the head of Cadburys.

In the 1960s my editor-in-chief gave me a travelling assignment of my choice, on condition that I managed to find a local link about which to write a feature. I decided to visit Friedrichshafen, in southern Germany, the home of the Zeppelin.

Despite the passage of decades, homage was still paid there to the silent aerial killer which later had a commercial role. Souvenir picture postcards, model Zeppelins and other memorabilia were on sale.

A Zeppelin bombed Yarmouth in 1915, Britain’s first attack from the air, killing two residents of St Peter’s Plain.

I surprised my German host when I revealed that my mission to Friedrichshafen stemmed from that historic raid on Yarmouth and the aborted 1918 one on London.

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