AND ITS EAST ANGLIAN CONNECTIONS
I must begin with Horatio Nelson, the most famous seaman that Norfolk has produced, and the most notable British Admiral of all time. His victory at Trafalgar established Britain’s hegemony at sea that enabled the creation of the greatest empire the world is ever likely to see. He was not only a Norfolkman, but he was proud of the county of his birth. This mutual regard was returned in spades by the people of Norfolk. There was a substantial Naval presence in Norfolk at Yarmouth two hundred years ago. The Naval Hospital building still exists, now converted into housing. There has been no permanent Naval base in Norfolk since the last war, and even then it was only a base for drifters and trawlers converted to minesweepers. There is now not even a Coastguard Station in East Anglia (Yarmouth’s was the last to close) but that is another story.
The local connections with the RN are therefore indirect for most of the past century. The oil painting of HMS Campbell, picked up from a secondhand shop in Cromer, represents a destroyer which spent the active part of its career in home waters. Finished just after the end of the First World War, she was laid-up for most of the inter-war period. For most of the Second War she was based at Harwich, then a major centre for destroyers, which Yarmouth never was.
HMS Sparham, the subject of another blog, only sneaks in on account of her name which was taken from the village between Norwich and Fakenham. The minesweeper only remained a Royal Navy vessel for just over a month, before being sold to the French. This Ham class of vessel was built in the latter part of the 1950s. Before the use of fibre-glass this type of vessel was built of wood to minimize the risk of detonating magnetic mines.
HMS Bulwark was the name of a warship which came to a tragic end within the first six months of the Great War. The Battleship was moored in the Medway with her full complement of crew when she was completely destroyed by an explosion, almost certainly as a result of her stocks of cordite being stored too close to the boilers. Among those lost (virtually everyone aboard) was one of my grandmother’s nephews, aged just 16.
The ports of East Anglia in Yarmouth and Lowestoft came under bombardment from the sea in the First World War, but the most famous Naval engagement off East Anglia took place much longer ago. In the seventeenth century, during the reign of Charles II, the Dutch and British were at war. The origins of the conflict lay in the imperial ambitions of both countries. Although the British Empire eventually eclipsed the Dutch Empire, at the time the outcome was by no means certain. The First Anglo-Dutch War was conducted under Oliver Cromwell, but the return of the king did nothing to alter the foreign policy of the country in this respect. The engagement took place on the 28th of May 1672 and is known as the Battle of Sole Bay.
The English Fleet under James, Duke of York (the King’s brother) and their allies the French were surprised by the smaller Dutch contingent off the coast near Southwold. The wind at first favoured the Dutch and when it changed direction the Dutch withdrew. The outcome was inconclusive though bloody, but the Dutch obtained their main objective, to prevent the English and French from blockading the Dutch ports.
Going much further into history, there was an engagement between Alfred the Great’s navy and the Vikings off Shotley in 885. This is on the mouth of the Stour between Suffolk and Essex. This was part of the on-going conflict between the two sides which eventually led to the defeat of the Vikings and the creation of the single kingdom of England. This battle is remembered in the name Bloody Point. The English Navy, the Senior Service (older than the Army), is said by some to have originated with the fleet established by Alfred the Great.
As an island nation, the Navy should be the principal plank of the defence of Britain. With the growth of air power we should be well equipped with aircraft carriers; currently we have none in service. I cannot help thinking that the government has let us down in this crucial aspect of military policy; for if we are vulnerable to attack from the sea, what is the use of any other policy? The huge Welfare budget may produce a comfortable life for the disadvantaged, but there is always the risk that it can be extinguished by unfriendly foreign powers. There appears to be no immanent danger, but who can tell the future?
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA