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History lesson for the One show

PUBLISHED: 18:43 30 July 2009 | UPDATED: 14:33 03 July 2010

People gather in St Peter's Plain to inspect the bomb damage in January 1915.

People gather in St Peter's Plain to inspect the bomb damage in January 1915.

POOR old Yarmouth, I thought at the time. There we were, safe in the knowledge that our little bit of history dating back nearly a century was sacrosanct, only to have that claim to fame snatched from us by a celebrity historian.

POOR old Yarmouth, I thought at the time. There we were, safe in the knowledge that our little bit of history dating back nearly a century was sacrosanct, only to have that claim to fame snatched from us by a celebrity historian...and to exacerbate matters, millions of television viewers the length and breadth of the nation were watching as he did so.

This was in June on The One Show, a magazine-type half-hour programme following the national and Look East news bulletins that has become a popular 7pm fixture in the BBC1 schedules five nights a week, fronted by presenters Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley. When I heard this particular item introduced, I stopped washing up immediately, dried my hands and prepared to enjoy a few minutes of national recognition for Great Yarmouth.

OK, to be fair, Dan Snow did not debunk the borough's rightful place in the record books. In fact, he never mentioned Yarmouth, doing us a grave disservice by disregarding us entirely and crediting London with “the unfortunate distinction” of being the very first place in Britain to suffer from aerial bombardment.

London? No, Dan. Sorry, and all that. It was Great Yarmouth, more than four months before that raid on the capital. Thousands of people around here could have put you straight. Perhaps an attack on the capital carried more viewer-appeal than Yarmouth...

As an historian whose living depends on accuracy, this was an unfortunate apparent lapse by a man who researches TV programmes like Battlefield Britain and also writes books, especially as a quick double-check of several websites would have revealed the truth.

If I heard a-right, according to Snow - son of veteran national newscaster and reporter Peter Snow - on May 31 1915 London - “the heart of empire” - was raided by the German Zeppelin L38 as retaliation for a British naval blockade, “the first London blitz”. The capital was ill-prepared for such an attack.

Over the London borough of Stoke Newington, L38 released 120 bombs, killing seven people, he reported.

But it was on the evening of Tuesday, January 19 1915, that German Navy Zeppelin L3, commanded by Kapitan Leutnant Hans Fritz, flew slowly over Yarmouth and released ten bombs (in fact, the crew lobbed them overboard by hand), giving our town the dubious distinction of making history as the first victim of an aerial attack.

The bombs reportedly fell between Albemarle Road in Gorleston and the South Denes in Yarmouth, but only one proved fatal: it fell on St Peter's Plain in Yarmouth, causing two deaths - the first victims ever to die in an air attack on the UK.

These casualties were 72-year-old Martha Taylor, who lived in Drake's Buildings close to St Peter's Villa where this bomb landed, and Samuel Smith, of York Road, a 53-year-old shoemaker. At the inquest into their deaths, coroner Tolver Watson called it “nothing short of wilful murder” because there was no military objective to be achieved by the death-dealing flight.

Although there was a Royal Naval Air Station on our South Denes, the aircraft based there were unable to defend the town against this Zeppelin attack because the intruders flew far too high for them to reach.

Researchers who have studied German official records of the incident have concluded that Yarmouth was bombed by mistake, even though it was a town of strategic importance because it was a busy port being used as a submarine base for North Sea operations, possessed a naval airfield, and had various factories.

Two Zeppelins, L3 and L4, silently nosed their way in the darkness from Germany to cross British shores, the first hovering over Yarmouth to deliver its deadly cargo, while the other crossed Norfolk to King's Lynn where its bombs caused no fatalities. Then both returned to Germany, their captains deluding themselves on the success of their mission because they had thought they were attacking important targets in the north-east of England - more than 250 miles away as the Zeppelin flies!

Their error was due to abysmal navigation.

Martham villagers saw the L3 as it followed the Norfolk coastline in a southerly direction on its approach to Yarmouth (its alleged north-eastern target), and it was reported that a first bomb, an incendiary, splashed down into a soggy paddock near Ormesby St Michael Church.

Even as the bombs fell on Yarmouth, hundreds of people stood in the streets watching the airship, blissfully unaware that its deadly intent was imperilling their lives.

Of the history-making ten L3 bombs and grenades that fell in that Albemarle Road-South Denes line, it was the fourth that killed Miss Taylor and Mr Smith; the fifth landed in Friars Lane but failed to detonate but was later exploded by a time fuse in 70ft of water at sea, killing a 20lb cod! Another dropped close to the First and Last public house in Southgates Road.

An event of such magnitude inevitably spawned some tall stories. For example, Joseph Steel, the licensee of the Refreshment Rooms public house at the Fishwharf (later the Dolphin, a popular restaurant with the North Sea oil and gas executives and workers but now closed), said the blast bodily raised his roof. When it crashed back into place, it turned a picture about-face on a wall and flung his daughter off her piano-stool and across the room.

Although Mr Steel's dramatic description was taken with the proverbial pinch of salt, it was undeniable that the particular bomb that hit the Fishwharf did cause widespread damage.

The national press was vitriolic in its condemnation of the German raid. One called the Zeppelin crew “loathsome, blood-mad fiends” who would regret their action because it would make Britain even more determined to crush “that degraded nation” which had employed tactics “more savage than those of the lowest races known to humanity.”

There was even criticism in Germany, one high-ranking officer calling the raid premature and foolish, serving no strategic purpose.

Let me end by quoting from The One Show's BBC website: “Our history man Dan believes 'History is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to anyone on this planet'. To prove it he's travelling the country to uncover Britain's colourful history. From China's Terracotta Army and Emperor Hadrian's wall through to the invention of marmalade and the creation of the first bicycle tyres, Dan is a walking encyclopaedia of fascinating facts.”

If he ever visits Yarmouth, he can visit the spot where that first fatal bomb fell, now marked with a plaque.

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