Gresham’s at War: Zeppelin raids 19th January 1915

Some of the first letters from ex-pupils serving on the Western Front in 1914 had spoken of ‘exciting times up in the trenches’, but by early 1915 news was filtering through of harsh weather causing dreadful conditions.

Wet weather at home was also causing problems by holding up building work on the chapel; rainfall for the Holt area in the winter months is normally about 2-3 ins per month, but in December 1914 and January 1915 the total was 11 ins.  House matches had been abandoned in favour of drill with the Corps, and pupils had to get up even earlier for lessons with the introduction during January of Daylight Saving Time due to concerns over the School being a well-lit target for Zeppelins.

In fact, by the 27th January when this was introduced, there had already been a raid.  Two Zeppelins, the L3 and L4, trying to find the Humber, had lost their course in the wintry conditions of the night of 19th January and found North Norfolk instead.  The first one dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth, killing two people and injuring three others.  The second crossed the coastline over Bacton and passed by Cromer.

At nearby Sheringham the pilot tried to find out where he was, hovering above the cloud at only 800 feet, his face clearly visible to startled locals in the High Street as housemaster Wynne Willson recalls in his journal:

“We were among the first people to see or hear them when they came over England.  We were told at Holt that a Zeppelin was hovering over Sheringham; they had a 4.7 gun on the links there, but I believe its elevation was not great enough and its use would have meant considerable retaliation on the town.  As it was, they dropped two or three small bombs, which were the first actually dropped on English soil.  At about eight o’clock they came over us at Holt and we put out all lights.  The little boys in my boarding house were on the whole more excited than alarmed. Luckily for the inhabitants of the boarding house, the bombs all fell round a farmhouse, killing one or two sheep and a turkey, and dislodging some tiles.  Next day the school repaired thither en masse to inspect the damage and the boys searched the small craters for bits of bombs; they collected from round the farm quite a large store of old scrap iron which had probably lain there for decades.  I remember taking a parcel of sweets down for the small children at the farmhouse, who of course had been much frightened.”

airship

Zeppelin photo which was in an album of photos taken by Gilbert Wilson (geologist) who attended from 1913-17.

Wynne Willson’s own son Bill, then a child of three, remembered 85 years later being brought downstairs for safety when the Zeppelins came over.  His six year old sister recorded that “Two boys were going home when they heard a bomb 100 yards away, “ adding, “ they turned round and threw there bykes into the hedge and bolted to the Old School House”, saying “ they where very fritened (and) several boys were crying.”

Some of the residents of the junior house were also frightened and had to be gathered round the fire and read stories to calm their tears.  Young pupil Geoffrey Diggle, however, was disappointed the Zeppelins had not caused more damage than the six small craters that appeared in a turnip field.  He also recalled the housemaster praying for a quiet night at evening prayers following the raid. The attack of 19th January caused a great sensation in Norfolk, bringing the reality of war close to home and invoking mixed feelings in the School of excitement and fear.

Mr Wynne Willson’s detailed journal of life on the home front at Holt is one of the sources we use from the School Archives to help bring this period of history to life for our Year 9 pupils.  It is featured heavily in our centenary exhibition Gresham’s at War: 1914-18 which will be available online on the re-launched Old Greshamian Club website  in January (www.ogclub.com/archives).

Anyone who has Gresham’s ancestors who fought in the War is invited to contact the School Archivist Liz Larby (author of this post) on Tel: 01263 714613 or llarby@greshams.com

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