Friday, 1 January 2016

Yarmouth Bombardment and Mormon Spies!

On the morning of Tuesday 3 November 1914 residents of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk were disturbed by what was at first thought to be a naval engagement several miles out to sea. Indeed, newspapers the following day carried an announcement to this effect by the Secretary to the Admiralty:
"This morning the enemy’s squadron fired on the Halcyon, a coastguard gunboat engaged in patrolling, with the result that one man was wounded. The Halcyon having reported the presence of these vessels, various naval movements were made, as a result of which they retreated rapidly, and although shadowed by the light cruisers, they could not be brought to action before dusk.
"The rearmost cruiser in retiring threw out a number of mines, and submarine D5 was sunk by exploding one of these. Two officers and two men and who were on the bridge of the submarine, which was running on the surface, were saved. Nothing else has happened during the day in home waters except that the gunboat flotilla has been available in support of the Belgian left flank."
Commencing sometime after seven o’clock the cannonade awakened some to the clattering of windows and the shaking of houses. Residents hurried to the sea front but although there was much to be heard, there was little to be seen with the haze of an autumn dawn hanging over the sea.

Some of the shells reportedly dropped within a mile or two the shore; others came even closer, with one exploding within a few hundred yards of the naval air station on the south side of Yarmouth.

The inhabitants were excited, but not really alarmed. They had no time and little evidence to understand what was happening, and the theory that the Germans were taking a few pot shots at Yarmouth was not evolved until later in the day. What they had witnessed was the Imperial German Navy putting into action War Plan 19, which was a mine laying operation combined with the bombardment of Great Yarmouth, although the latter resulted in little damage.

Newspaper reports of the event noted that Territorial troops were called out, and a detachment of them were marched down to the Marine Parade with fixed bayonets. At the time the Cheshire Yeomanry were stationed in Norfolk on coastal defence duties and "A" Squadron were responsible for the northern part of the Regiment’s sector, which included Great Yarmouth.

The following uncredited letter gives some insight into the life with the Cheshire Yeomanry at the time.

Cheshire Observer - Saturday 14 November 1914 




Yarmouth, Nov. 8. 
We are now stationed here for musketry practice. Since the Germans fired on Yarmouth last Tuesday a considerable number of mounted men have been drafted into the town. We are comfortably housed in boarding-houses, and once again are having the comforts of civilisation, and sleeping on spring mattresses instead of bare boards or ground sheet. The boarding house people are being paid for our sleeping accommodation, and also for cooking. We draw Army rations from a central depot, and all the housekeepers have to do is cook it for us. There are generally ten men and the N.C.O. in each house. So near the front are some the houses which we occupy that several had windows broken by the concussion from the German gun fire last Tuesday. The noise during the fire was terrific, some of the houses fairly shaking. Our horses are also now being well sheltered in stables at various hotels, mews, etc., in the town. No lights are shewn on the front, or in other exposed parts of the town, at night, and where lamps cannot be avoided the side facing the sea is darkened. To be here after our dull time in Langley Park is a welcome change, and our work is a real pleasure, while the Yarmouth people, after their experience Tuesday last, are inclined, if anything, to treat us too kindly. The weather since coming here, with the exception of morning sea fog, has been grand. Just before writing this I have been watching the various evolutions of one of the many aeroplanes which are constantly along this portion of the coast, on the look-out for the Germans. Every military man in the town knows where to go and what to do in case of alarm by day or night. Instead of church parade this morning we had bare-back exercise on the sands. Yarmouth Church is a fine building, somewhat similar to our Cathedral at Chester, and the natives of bloater* town proudly tell us they have the largest church in England. It will accommodate 3,500 people. I am pleased to say there are no Chester men in hospital, and that all are fit and well. In fact, Major Barbour’s men, with the exception of minor ailments, have been the healthiest men in the regiment.

Major Robert Barbour was the Officer commanding "B" Squadron.
See Lives of the First World War.

* Great Yarmouth has three herring on its coat of arms, and it was famous for its own type of whole, salted, cold-smoked, or 'bloated', herring – known as bloaters (the nickname of the town's football team).

A week after the above letter was published, another correspondent wrote with further insight on the raid and life with the Cheshire Yeomanry. The author also outlines additional excitement involving "two men masquerading as Mormons" who were thought may have been spies.

Chester Chronicle - Saturday 21 November 1914




Corporal A. Stelfox, of the "C" Squadron of Cheshire Yeomanry, who will be remembered by hosts of Northwich friends as amateur singer and football player, writes from the new Cheshire Yeomanry camp as follows: "We were sent down to Yarmouth just in time to be at the bombardment by eight cruisers of the enemy. Fortunately, apart from giving the inhabitants a shock, the Germans did no damage. They opened fire on Yarmouth at a distance of eight miles, but did not come any nearer – fortunately for themselves. The fishing operations are practically at a standstill owing to the North Sea being closed through mines. The mines are ready for the Germans, therefore not wish to destroy our own fishing trawlers, and this would probably happen, as mines abound all along this part of the coast, and it was a miracle that the Gorman flotilla escaped coming in contact with some them on their visit to Yarmouth.

"We are billeted in boarding houses as near as possible to the sea, whilst our horses are also being well sheltered in stables, mews, etc. Needless, to say, after our rough time under canvas, both men and horses are feeling better for the change of conditions, and I often hear many of our Northwich men remark that being at ----- and sleeping once again, if only for short time, in a comfortable bed is like being home.

"We had some sport last Thursday, the Northwich troop especially coming in for mention, in the capturing of two men masquerading as Mormons. These men called at one of the houses where a number of N.C.O.’s and men are billeted. Not liking their appearance, Sergt.-Major Rutter decided to hand them over to the police. When the alleged Mormons heard they were going to be arrested, they attempted get away, but, needless to say, they were frustrated in their attempt and marched to the Central Police Station by a strong escort, under the command of Sergt.-Major Rutter, where they were detained for full enquiries as to their bonafides.

"The two men met with a very hostile reception whilst being marched through the town, and in fact, only for the intervention of Sergt. Platt, Sergt. A. Rutter, Corpl. A. Stelfox, Tpr. Clare, and other men of the Northwich troop, the two undesirables would have been thrown over the wall into the sea.

"----- is a fine old place, and the people proudly boast of their possessions, foremost of which is their splendid church (the largest church in England), accommodating 4,000 people. Another sight is what they call the Rows – that is, houses placed so near together that a party in the doorway of one house can shake hands with their neighbours opposite, whilst to see the Scotch lassies at work amongst the herrings is a sight never to be forgotten. In fact, I may say, although the weather is cold and stormy, all of us from good old Northwich are going fit and well and enjoying ourselves."

Nothing further has been found of the fate of the Mormans, and Richard Verdin in his history of the Cheshire Yeomanry notes that "the Regiment received many congratulations from the townspeople but history does not relate whether in fact the “Mormons” were spies or two innocent civilians frightened by the attitude of the Yeomanry. It was about this time that a spy mania began to grip the whole country to the great disadvantage of anyone of foreign appearance or with a foreign name."

  • Raid on Yarmouth – Wikipedia
  • Cheshire (Earl of Chester's) Yeomanry, 1898-1967, by Sir Richard Verdin
  • Admiral von Hipper: The inconvenient Hero, Tobias R. Philbin
  • German Battlecruisers of World War One: Their Design, Construction and Operations, by Gary Staff

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