Strategy, Operations and Perception: The Coastal Bombardments of 1916


At shortly after 4am on the morning of April 25th 1916 the residents of Lowestoft were awakened by the thunder of naval gunfire. Heavy caliber shells began to crash into the town in a whirlwind bombardment which lasted around ten minutes. Half an hour later, for the second time in the War, the seaside town of Yarmouth suffered a similar fate. Casualties were reasonably light, but in many ways this was immaterial. Neither town was a credible military target, and killing British civilians was a means rather than an end. What the German’s hoped to achieve by their action was more subtle, more intangible, and ultimately far more dangerous to British interests.

The German navy had begun to raid British coastal towns as a means of enticing the Grand Fleet south from its lair at Scapa Flow shortly after the outbreak of war. But the Battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank had convinced the Kaiser that preserving a fleet in being was more important than trying to take the initiative in the North Sea. As a result, the High Seas Fleet had sat at its moorings in Wilhelmshaven for much of the first two years of the War. This resulted in a good deal of frustration amongst German sailors, who looked enviously to their U-Boat colleagues who were more involved in the war effort.

Yet this policy of inactivity was not without its impact. By the autumn of 1915 a sense of frustration with the War was growing in Britain and the relative inaction of the Royal Navy became a source of widespread comment. As one writer complained, ‘there is a growing tendency on the part of those in authority to ‘wait and see’. That is not warfare.’ Such frustrations spread to the heart of government, where a desire for a more vigorous prosecution of the War at sea began to grow. Similar sentiments were evident in senior naval circles. The recently retired Admiral Lord Fisher sought to play upon the government’s dissatisfaction by reminding his friends that ‘no amount of Cabinet or War Council instructions are of the slightest use if those who have to carry them out are totally wanting in ‘push’ and ‘initiative’! There must be ginger at the top if you want ginger at the bottom!’

The result was a gradual increase in the pressure on the British C-in-C, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, to take greater risks with the force under his command. During the spring of 1916, lengthy discussions occurred between Jellicoe and his superiors about potential means of enticing the German fleet out to battle. The C-in-C encouraged caution in the face of pressure from above. ‘Provided there is a chance of destroying some of the enemy’s heavy ships, it is right and proper to run risks’, he wrote, ‘but unless the chances are reasonably great, I do not think that such risks should be run’.

Jellicoe’s caution was the product of the huge responsibilities command of the Grand Fleet conferred upon him. His force was the guarantor of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world and the security of her east coast. It was also fundamental to the enforcement of Britain’s campaign of economic warfare and to her links with the Expeditionary Force fighting in France and Belgium. Such considerations were easily blurred as the country strained under the burden of eighteen months of unprecedented total war, however. In this context, the German raids on Lowestoft and Yarmouth threatened to exert an influence over the use of the Grand Fleet out of all proportion to their military significance and thereby expose a vital strategic asset to attrition for mines and submarines in the North Sea.

Jellicoe was much affected by the civilian deaths caused by the raids, but despite the best efforts of the Admiralty’s signals intelligence department – Room 40 – the Grand Fleet was unable to cut off the fast retreating German squadron: ‘I can never be south in time’, he lamented. Despite having risked sailing with no destroyer cover due to inclement weather, the British Fleet was simply too remote from the vulnerable stretches of the east coast.

The obvious solution to this dilemma was to move the Fleet further south, probably to Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. This would not eliminate the difficulties of responding to raids further south, but would certainly shorten the distance Jellicoe’s force had to steam. The move was not without its attendant difficulties, as Rosyth was less spacious than Scapa Flow and afforded little opportunity for exercising the Fleet, but Jellicoe appeared to be reconciling himself to it by May. On the eve of Jutland the British C-in-C was thus faced with the conflicting demands of preserving his Fleet – and thereby British command of the seas – and a political demand for a more proactive approach to fighting in the North Sea.

The raids of April 1916 and the reaction they provoked highlight the tense relationship between operational and strategic success and the role of perception in linking the two. Bombarding coastal towns was of virtually no military significance, yet by adding to the growing sense of public and official frustration with British naval strategy, it threatened to shape the employment of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe recognised this danger and – despite the unpalatable reality that his force could not prevent future raids – urged his superiors to prioritise the broader strategic picture. In his analysis battle should only be offered under circumstances sufficiently favourable to justify the risk. Since the Admiralty continued to rely upon Jellicoe to defend the country, her vital trade routes and the supply line to France, his judgment appears sound a century later.

Image: Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, via wikimedia commons.





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