Port’s important WW1 submarine base

Aerial view of base on South Quay.

Aerial view of base on South Quay. - Credit: Archant

The comings and goings of a secret naval base went more or less un-noticed by the residents of Great Yarmouth in the early months of the First World War.

South Quay base with HMS Alecto in background.

South Quay base with HMS Alecto in background. - Credit: Archant

Press restrictions meant its existence couldn’t be reported anyway, but such was its importance to the Royal Navy great steps were taken to ensure the Germans were kept in the dark about the port’s submarines – but it wasn’t long before they became a target for attack.

By April 1915 – eight months after the outbreak of the war, the submarine base was fully operational on South Quay.

Submarines had been in service with the Navy since 1903; the early versions very primitive and experimental.

The port had been no stranger to submarines in the pre-war years and in 1908 two had provided an interesting sight when a strong tide swept them against Haven Bridge and several visited in the succeeding years.

Three C-class subs visit the port in pre-war years

Three C-class subs visit the port in pre-war years - Credit: Archant

At the outbreak of war the Navy had 86 submarines in service, divided into nine flotillas.

Four flotillas were used for patrol duties, the other five for coastal defence.

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The nearest bases were at Harwich and Dover but increasing hostile activity further north of these bases resulted in a supplementary base set up at Great Yarmouth.

The fourth generation C-class submarines then in service were small, had petrol engines, were prone to explosive fires due to the inflammable fumes and lacked any internal bulkheads and in August 1914 one of these vessels, from a base at Dover, was brought to Yarmouth, soon to be followed by five more.

HMS Adamant arrived as a depot ship, soon to be replaced by HMS Alecto, under the captaincy of Cdr Sir Leonard Vavasour.

Depot ships, or mother ships, provided support, repair and supply services to their flotilla of submarines.

Local historian Colin Tooke has researched Yarmouth’s key role in submarine operations.

He said: “Towards the end of 1914, HMS Alecto, with its complement of 76 officers and men, was moored at Bryant’s Quay, at the south end of South Quay, opposite Friars Lane.

This was to remain the submarine base until the end of the war.

“A wooden fence was erected to enclose the quay from the road with a gate at the northern end. Workshops, accommodation for the crews and two large fuel tanks were built on the quayside.

“Local engineering support for the base was provided by James Combes, engineer and smith, who had premises at 64 South Quay and at the western end of Row 143, almost opposite the base.

Wartime restrictions meant that no reports of the presence of the submarines appeared in the local press and it went unnoticed by most of the townsfolk.”

For the duration of his stay in the town, Cdr Sir Leonard Vavasour, captain of Alecto lived in a large house in Euston Road, a building that was to become the Labour Club. The officers’ mess was in a house on South Quay, opposite the base.

The early submarines were slow and very limited to the time they could remain submerged and were quickly superseded by more advanced designs.

During the coastal bombardment of Yarmouth in November 1914, three Harwich submarines in the port and berthed at Gorleston, put to sea after hearing the gunfire from the German battleships.

Because of the distance the submarines, travelling on the surface, were unable to make contact with enemy and one struck a mine and sunk, with a loss of 20 members of her crew.

Mr Tooke said: “The Yarmouth base was now strengthened with additional D and E-class submarines brought to the port. These were larger and had diesel engines, the D-class having three 18ins torpedo tubes and a crew of 24 while the E-class had five torpedo tubes and a crew of 30.

“Wireless was still in its infancy in the early years of the war and was not fitted.

“Their only means of communication when at sea was by carrier pigeons, each boat carrying a small crate of birds that were released to relay messages back to their base.”

In January 1916 four of the larger American designed H-class submarines were based at Yarmouth. These carried four torpedo tubes.

By now the port had become the main base for the 8th flotilla, previously based at Harwich.

In April 1915 the second coastal bombardment began, the target being the Lowestoft minesweeping base and Yarmouth submarine base. Submarines from Yarmouth were patrolling off the coast in anticipation of a raid but when it happened they were too far away to engage the enemy.

Unfortunately, revealed Mr Tooke, the submarines were attacked by British planes, which had mistakenly identified them as German U-boats.

But the German bombardment led to the Yarmouth-based flotilla being reinforced with additional submarines moved down from the Firth of Forth.

Submarine development was rapid throughout the war years leading to several new classes being introduced by January 1917.

The 8th flotilla now consisted of two F-class, five H-class and four V-class boats.

The number of submarines in the flotilla varied throughout the war and by June 1918 there were eight boats, four H-class and four V-class.

The Yarmouth submarines continued with their coastal patrol duties but when the third, and last, bombardment of the town happened on 14 January 1918 for an unexplained reason no submarines from the Yarmouth base were sent out.

During the years the base was in operation only three of its submarines were lost.

Mr Tooke added: “After peace was declared in 1918, the base remained for a few months but the following year the Alecto base at Bryant’s Quay was decommissioned and the site returned to the Port and Haven Commissioners.

“This part of the quay was then taken over by the shipping company T Small & Co, who for several years used it for their steamer service to Hull.”