Gallery: Did the empress save Felixstowe from German bombardment during First World War?
- Credit: Archant
Not a sad tale of personal sacrifice this week but a look at the years before war broke out: a story involving the empress of Germany, the Suffolk seaside and an island across the North Sea. Don Black reports.
Two North Sea geographical oddities: one is Felixstowe, the town with a resort facing south and port facing west; the other Heligoland, its red sandstone cliffs 30 miles from mainland.
They share a story that ought to have averted two world wars, revolving around closely-related imperial families that drifted apart.
The root of the tragedy was the bullying Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Had he been anything like his peace-loving father, charming wife or Anglophile heir there would surely have been no war. As it was, the Kaiser built battleships to rival those of the Royal Navy.
He also turned Heligoland, British until 1890, into a fortress. The island north-west of Hamburg and near the bottom of Denmark became a target for naval crews of Harwich harbour and Suffolk-based airmen. (Later, it was a peacetime bombing range until 1952. Its final claim to fame was “hosting” the most powerful non-nuclear explosion of all time.)
Britain – which had seized it in 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars – later swapped it for Zanzibar, a much larger East African island.
Contrary to an understanding that Heligoland should be a symbol of a peaceful relationship, the Germans fortified it and built breakwaters to shelter the largest warships.
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The UK Cabinet rejected advice that, in response, Harwich harbour should be deepened to take battleships and heavy cruisers. So it was that only light cruisers sailed out past Felixstowe’s Landguard Point, heading for the first naval engagement of The Great War, the Battle of Heligoland Bight.
That happened on August 28, 1914, when the Harwich Force, commanded by Commodore Sir Reginald Tyrwitt, sank a destroyer that couldn’t make it back to the safety of Heligoland. He had the shock of his life when mist cleared at dawn to reveal enemy heavy cruisers.
Admiral Sir David Beatty arrived in the nick of time with his battle cruiser squadron and sank three light cruisers. It was round one to the Royal Navy.
That encouraged Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to urge an invasion of Heligoland be carried out. Plans were dropped when attention was turned to Gallipoli, with a disastrous outcome.
Heligoland continued to feature in North Sea actions, some involving Harwich warships and Felixstowe seaplanes.
We need to go back to the summer of 1890 – in the Isle of Wight home of Queen Victoria, no less – to find that Felixstowe figured in events intended to keep the peace.
Kaiser Wilhelm watched the Spithead naval review from his imperial yacht Hohenzollern and visited the queen at Osborne House. Formalities were observed, but she didn’t like losing her loyal Heligoland subjects and their strategic island to her nastiest grandchild.
The Kaiser made gestures to keep his granny as happy as possible. He ordered Hohenzollern to call at the island on his way home, then plot a course for his family’s holiday at Felixstowe the next summer.
Felixstowe was then a select holiday village. Empress Augusta Victoria and five of her sons stayed at South Beach mansion, atop Bent Hill, in July, 1891. She had visited Queen Victoria and arrived at Felixstowe by special train, her sons by the royal yacht.
During his stay Crown Prince Wilhelm, “Little Willy” in British wartime parlance, travelled from Felixstowe to see his great-grandmother Victoria. His holiday helped him admire all things English. Visual proof is a Tudor-style mansion he built near Berlin.
The empress, herself descended from a half-sister of Queen Victoria, is said to have bathed modestly in the sea from a bathing machine while her children played on the beach.
She patronised the corrugated iron church of St John the Baptist, close to the shore. Her gift of a Bible was treasured but kept firmly under lock and key after war broke out.
Perhaps the Kaiser, an honorary admiral in our Royal Navy, told his admiralty to stop short of Felixstowe when his warships shelled Scarborough, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. He certainly ordered his airships not to bomb Buckingham Palace, home of his cousin, George V.
The proper admiral who might have stopped the Kaiser in his tracks was “Jackie” Fisher. He lived and died at Kilverstone, near Thetford.
He was belligerent in wanting to attack Heligoland, “a dagger pointed at the heart of England”. As Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, he suggested to King George VII before the war that pre-emptive action would destroy the German fleet before it got too strong.
George, credited with being a peacemaker, is said to have responded: “My God, Fisher, you must be mad.” Fisher was wise, however, in concentrating his floating strength in the North Sea.
His son, the second Lord Fisher, acknowledged that his father could be “difficult”, as historians described him. On the other hand, he thought the war might “have ended by Christmas” (as optimists had predicted), or not have started at all, had “Jackie” Fisher been listened to.
Terrible disasters did happen, of course: one consequence being the Second World War. Hitler, who came to power through instability caused by the First, strengthened Heligoland’s defences.
They were so strong that preparations in early 1940 to attack the island with three destroyers from Harwich and three motor torpedo boats from Felixstowe, covered by Blenheim fighter-bombers from Martlesham, were cancelled.
The US 8th Air Force, flying from Suffolk and Essex bases, bombed Heligoland in 1943 and 1944, the RAF very heavily in April, 1945.
There was a high-level proposal that, after the war, the islands of Heligoland and Sylt be annexed by Britain as bases against Soviet expansion. Instead, Heligoland’s population was “relocated” and their home used for target practice.
On national service I was based at the RAF station on Sylt. Our fighter pilots did not go anywhere near Heligoland, which had been reserved for bombers doing everything they could to demolish the island.
Everything to do with nuclear bombs, except their actual detonation, was being developed or supported there and at Orfordness and Martlesham. Drops with experimental casings were made from different heights.
Heligoland suffered most in operation “Big Bang” on April 18, 1947. Ships took 7,000 tons of surplus bombs, shells and depth charges to the island, there to be detonated in its man-made tunnels. The explosion was described as the biggest since the Americans’ nuclear tests on Bikini.
When I landed on Heligoland in August, 1958, the prominent new church of St Nicholas was taking shape for nearly 2,000 islanders.
The island’s first post-war mayor, Henry Rickmers, gave me examples of Heligandish, nearest of the Frisian dialects to English. The troubled past, he said, was being forgiven all around what, before the First World War, was called the German Ocean.
Its new name, North Sea, shows it has always been too small for enmities to be perpetuated.