Anne Edwards/Eastern Daily Express10 April, 2015 - 11:04
In the early months of the First World War, one corner of Great Yarmouth’s waterfront found itself at the forefront of a brand new type of warfare. Anne edwards looks back on an often overlooked chapter from the region’s history: the town’s submarine base.
During the coastal bombardment of Yarmouth in November 1914, three Harwich submarines berthed at Gorleston, put to sea after hearing gunfire. They were unable to make contact with enemy and one struck a mine and sunk, with a loss of 20.
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 were too far away to engage the enemy. The submarines were attacked by British planes, which had mistakenly identified them as German U-boats.
During the third and last bombardment of Yarmouth, on 14 January 1918, no submarines from Yarmouth were sent out.
Press restrictions had meant its existence could not be reported and such was its strategic importance to the Royal Navy that great steps were taken to ensure the activities of the port’s submarines were shrouded in mystery.
The town had been no stranger to these vessels in the years before the war and in 1908 two had provided an interesting sight when a strong tide swept them against Haven Bridge.
At the outbreak, the Navy had 86 submarines in service.
Aerial view of base on South Quay.The nearest base was at Harwich, but increasing enemy activity in the North Sea resulted in a further site being established at Yarmouth.
The fourth generation C-class submarines then in service were small, had petrol engines, were prone to explosive fires and lacked any internal bulkheads.
In August 1914 one of these vessels arrived in 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.
By April 1915, the submarine base was fully operational on South Quay.
Local historian Colin Tooke 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.
“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, 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 lived in a large house in Euston Road, which later became the Labour Club. The officers’ mess was in a house on South Quay, opposite the base. As the war continued, the Yarmouth base was strengthened with larger, more modern vessels.
Wireless was still in its infancy in the early years of the war and was not fitted. The vessels’ 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. By 1916, the port had become the main base for the 8th flotilla, previously based at Harwich.
The numbers of submarines varied throughout the war, but during the base’s years in operation, only three were lost.
After the end of the war, the Alecto base was decommissioned and the site returned to the Port and Haven Commissioners.
The area was later taken over by the shipping company T Small & Co, who for several years used it for their steamer service to Hull.