BOMBARDMENT OF YARMOUTH AND LOWESTOFT


On April 24, 1916, the High Seas Fleet set out on an expedition intended to lure heavy British forces out of port and into battle in conditions advantageous to the Germans. The German ships were to bombard towns on the southeast coast of England on daybreak of the 25th, which along with air raids by zeppelins the night before would prompt the British units to intervene. The British had strong forces in the North Sea, off Norway, and another strong force in Hoofden and off the southeast coast of England. The Germans would sneak out between the two forces to bombard the English coast, and then the bombardment force would attack whichever British force showed first. With a little luck, the German battlecruisers could engage the southeast force, and after defeating it would run back to the northwest, meeting the northern group in the area around Terschelling Bank. Here the battlecruisers would attack the second British group from the south, and the main body of the High Seas Fleet would attack it from the north. If successful, the High Seas Fleet would be able to destroy significant elements of the British fleet before the main body of the Grand Fleet could assist, reducing or eliminating the Royal Navy's numerical superiority. If the British did not take the bait, then merchant ships could be captured and British units off the coast of Belgium destroyed.

Lowestoft and Yarmouth were selected as the targets of the bombardment. Lowestoft was a base of operations for mine laying and sweeping, while Yarmouth was a base for the submarines that disrupted German movements in the Heligoland Bight. The destruction of the harbors and other military establishments of both these coastal towns would assist the German war effort even if the raid failed to bait the British heavy units. Eight zeppelins would, after dropping their bombs, provide recognizance for the battlecruisers, which would in turn provide rescue operations should an airship be lost over the water. Two U-boats were sent out ahead of time to Lowestoft, while others were stationed off, or strew mines in, the Firth of Forth.

The battlecruisers Seydlitz, Lutzow, Derfflinger, Moltke and Von der Tann, commanded by Rear-Admiral Bödicker, would be supported by the six light cruisers of Scouting Division II and two fast torpedo-boat flotillas (VI and IX). The Main Fleet, consisting of Squadrons I, II and III, Scouting Division IV, and the remainder of the torpedo flotillas was to accompany the battle-cruisers to the Hoofden until the bombardment was over, in order, if necessary, to protect them against superior enemy forces.

At noon on the 24th all the forces were in place and the operation began. The course led around British minefields to the English coast, and was intended to put the bombardment group off Lowestoft and Yarmouth at daybreak, where they would bombard the towns for 30 minutes. But at 4 P.M. the battlecruiser Seydlitz, in the van of the recognizance force, struck a mine in an area swept the night before. She was forced to turn back with a flooded torpedo compartment, being only able to make 15 knots with 1400 tons of water on board and 11 men killed. While the rest of the squadron hove to, and Seydlitz extracted herself from the minefield, the German ships sighted, and avoided, torpedoes from one or more British submarines; the element of surprise was lost. Rather than call off the mission, the rest of the battlecruiser force altered course to take the route along the coast of East Friesland, a course previously avoided because with the clear weather, the ships would be sighted from the islands of Rottum and Schiermonnikoog and their movements reported to the British.

Around 8 PM a message from the Naval Staff confirmed that the British Fleet was still divided into two sections, and giving rise to optimism that the operation would go off as planned despite the mining of Seydlitz.

At 9.30 P.M. another message from the Naval Staff indicated that all British patrol boats were heading back to harbor, as sure sign that the British submarine(s) had reported the German movements.

The German airships, after dropping their bombs, reported back to the bombardment force: visibility over land was poor, the winds were unfavorable, and the towns were better defended than previously thought: the zeppelins bombing Norwich, Lincoln, Harwich and Ipswich and had been taken under fire by British ships, but none had been damaged.
At 5 A.M. the German battlecruisers approached the coast off Lowestoft. The light cruiser Rostock, providing flank cover for the battlecruisers, reported enemy ships and destroyers in a west-southwest direction. But it was not yet light enough to engage these ships, or vice-versa, Admiral Bödicker decided to proceed with the bombardment of the towns. The German ships reported seeing "excellent results" and that return fire was weak. The bombardment group then turned northwest to bombard Yarmouth' and to engage the ships reported by the Rostock.

Rostock and the light cruiser Elbing had tried to lead the British ships, four light cruisers and about twelve destroyers, into the waiting guns of the battlecruisers. But upon sighting the German capital ships, the British cruisers turned south to put distance between themselves and the German force. The German battlecruisers opened fire, causing severe damage to the cruiser Conquest and the destroyer Laertes and slightly damaging one other light cruiser. The Germans then ceased fire and turned northwest towards the rendezvous point off Terschelling Bank, hoping the British cruisers would follow, which they did not.

During the bombardment of the two coastal towns, the light cruiser Frankfurt sank an armed patrol steamer, while the leader of Torpedo-boat Flotilla VI, "G41," sank a second. The crews were rescued and taken prisoner.

Around 7.30 A.M. the German Naval Staff reported that intercepted wireless transmission indicated the British ships assembled off the southeast coast of England had been instructed not to intercept the Germans. Nor would the northern British forces attempt to intercept the German battlecruisers at Terschelling Bank (the Grand Fleet had put to sea on exercises the day before, and was returning to base low on coal), and British forces off the Belgian coast made themselves scarce: the Royal Navy would not fall into the German trap.

As the German ships headed for home, they dodged submarine attacks, encountering only two neutral steamers and some fishing vessels. The operation had been almost a complete failure, netting only two patrol craft sunk, one cruiser and one destroyer damaged, in exchange for serious damage to a battlecruiser, while the actual damage done to the naval establishments at Yarmouth and Lowestoft was light.

The raid infuriated the British, and cost the Germans heavily in the court of world opinion, as the operation brought back memories of the 'baby killer' raids earlier in the war. British casualties were 21 servicemen killed on warships, and 4 civilians killed and 19 wounded on land.