The Report of the German Invasion of Weybourne?
The Sheringham lifeboat the J.C. Madge which unknowingly sparked an invasion scare in February 1916.
Believe it or not but at least one invasion alert is reported to have occurred in Norfolk in WW1. This is mentioned in the diary of the Upcher family, who lived at Sheringham Hall, and who helped with looking after wounded soldiers at Sheringham VAD Hospital. It came at a time when invasion was actually taken very seriously and the War Office believed that the Germans could land up to 160,000 troops on the East Coast. Defences were set up all over East Anglia and inland and Norfolk was considered a prime target for an invasion.
The Upcher family of Sheringham Hall with Henry and Maria Upcher seen on the right.
On 24th February 1916 the Sheringham lifeboat the J.C. Madge went to the assistance of the SS Uller of Bergen. The lifeboat did not return and we will come back to that later on. But this disappearance sparked rumours amongst the patients at the hospital where in the diary it is noted,
‘Good deal of agitation about. Many soldiers on bikes and round hospital. Found out from our patients that a landing was expected. All the soldiers had been out all night and not come in for morning rations. The lifeboat had gone out to ship in distress off Wells and had not been heard of since.’
Rumours were rife amongst the soldiers in the hospital and the diary notes that the patients were expecting a bombardment and an invasion at any minute. The diary continued,
“Le Good came with wide open eyes to announce that Germans had landed at Weybourne! How many? ‘Ah that’s the worst of it, no one knows.’ And they are in khaki and it will be a very difficult thing to find them among the other soldiers.”
The diary tried to be objective in that they tell the patients that the lifeboat was often out for hours if it had to take a boat to Lowestoft or Yarmouth. But the patients were of the opinion that the lifeboat had been lured out by the Germans. The next report from the patients was,
‘…that the Germans in khaki having landed were going about shaking hands with soldiers and with the other hand knifing them! One after the other the man came in with the same tale, always ending in awestruck voices. But the lifeboat has not been heard of yet.’
And so these reports came in all day and the diary notes that soldiers and their officers were everywhere and that there were more ships than usual off the coast. One soldier was allowed to put up the Union Jack with the Red Cross flag at the hospital to calm everyone’s nerves, but as the diary stated,
‘… it had the contrary effect on most of them as they again came to pour out their fears that when we are bombarded, “I’m sorry for Sheringham when that happens they will at once fire on the Red Cross flag as they always do.”’
Then at 11 o’clock a sergeant came in and reported that it was now ‘Normal Conditions’, although the lifeboat still had not returned. However later on the diary noted,
‘The lifeboat returned safely the following Sunday evening at 6 p.m. but the German spy idea was so firmly rooted in the military brain that when she returned the trenches were manned.’
When the lifeboat landed a local was on hand to identify each of the crew and as that happened loaded rifles were at the ready just in case there were any unknown faces in the crew. The diary finishes by noting,
‘Later we heard that on the Friday night of the scare the boat being called out the same night that orders were given to fire on any boat which attempted to land on any part of the beach. When those in authority were asked about the lifeboat. ‘oh they had forgotten about that. So other orders had to be issued to except the lifeboat. When the fishermen went to the boat to launch her they were allowed across the cliffs with a military escort.’
Part of the Upcher diary entry for 24th February 1916.
So what had actually happened to the lifeboat? The history of the Sheringham lifeboat website tells the story.
‘The Uller, bound from Sunderland to La Pallice with a cargo of coal, struck a sandbank early in the morning of the 24th February. Seriously damaged she floated off, and drifted for some eighteen hours, until she again struck the bottom on the Blakeney Overfalls bank. In great difficulty she drifted clear into deeper water and made signals for assistance. The day had been wild and stormy and the snow was falling thickly as the maroons called out the Sheringham Lifeboat.
Messages were received that both Cromer and Wells lifeboats were unable to launch due to the severity of the storm. The Sheringham crew had a long run, in the dark, from the town to the lifeboat house over the cliffs which had been trenched and barb-wired.
Eventually the J.C. Madge was launched by means of the haul-off warp, the first wave she met buried the boat and soaked the crew to the skin. The Uller was discovered just inside the Blakeney Overfalls at around 10pm that evening and the second coxwain and a crewmember went on board to discuss the situation with her captain. The Uller still had steam and could achieve half power so, for the rest of the night, through swirling snow, the Sheringham men stood by in their open boat.
In the morning the Uller began the voyage towards Grimsby, the lifeboat being towed behind on a 90ft tow line, her crew having to make constant effort not to be flung onto the Uller’s propeller, now half out of the sea due to the water in her damaged bow.
It took two days for the vessels to reach the Humber, the lifeboatmen spent the night in Grimsby where many had family and friends. The crew’s family and friends however had received no news of the lifeboat which had disappeared into the darkness 24 hours before. A passing French steamer took the lifeboat in tow for some of the long journey home and the J.C. Madge finally returned to station at 6pm on the 28th February.’
It is amazing that the disappearance of the Sheringham lifeboat sparked this alert but it is quite indicative of the time that spies were supposed to be all over the Norfolk coast and that the threat of invasion was considered quite real. It came at a time when Norfolk had been and was being attacked from the air and from the sea.
So plans had been made to evacuate the population should an invasion occur and plans to thwart this were in place in all districts put forward by the Local Emergency Committies under the command of Norfolk Country Constabulary, the Special Constabulary and the local Army brigades.
An example of a Defence of the Realm poster instructing the inhabitants of Hunstanton what to do in the event of an invasion.
And the diary entry for this incident ended with this question.
‘Report only reached home of agitation along the coast at 1 o clock. The military alertness spread all along the East Coast. Shall we ever hear if there was any foundation in the reports?’
Whether the Upchers ever found out that this had all been a false alarm with no foundation is not mentioned in the diary. But it is an amazing insight into a time when this was taken very seriously.