The Lowestoft Raid of 25 April 1916 saw elements of the German High Seas Fleet bombard the east coast port of Lowestoft and threaten Yarmouth. The Germans took advantage of the distribution of the British fleet, which saw the battleships of the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow and the battle cruisers at Rosyth. Weaker British squadrons were based further south, but only Commodore Tyrwhitt at Harwich would be able to respond in time to make contact with the Germans.
The main aim of the German sortie was to support the Easter Uprising, which broke out on 24 April. On the same day the German High Seas fleet came out. The German force contained 22 capital ships (battleships and battlecruisers), 5 older battleships, 12 light cruisers and 48 destroyers under the command of Admiral Scheer. The actual raiding force was made up of the 1st Scouting Group (four battlecruisers), the 2nd Scouting Group (four cruisers) and two fast destroyer flotillas led by cruisers all under Admiral Boedicker. The Germans allowed 30 minutes for the bombardment, before the battle cruisers would have to retire.
The High Seas Fleet came out to sea on 24 April. The plan was for it to sail along the Frisian coast, passing south of the German mine barrage, then turn north to pass the British minefield north of the Dutch coast. At this point Admiral Boedicker’s flagship, the battlecruiser Seydlitz, struck a mine, and Boedicker was forced to transfer to the Lützow. This delayed the fleet, and gave the British more time to respond, but despite their best efforts the Grand Fleet did not get out until the evening of 24 April.
The only effective British response came from Commodore Tyrwhitt’s 5th Light Cruiser Squadron (HMS Conquest, HMS Cleopatra and HMS Penelope), supported by two destroyer flotillas, one led by the Lightfoot and one by the Nimrod. At first it was unclear what the German target was – a particually alarming possibility was that they might try to break into the Downs, where a hundred merchant ships were waiting to enter the Port of London. Once Tyrwhitt was at sea it became more obvious where the Germans were heading, and so he turned north to protect the British bases at Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
At 3.50 am on the morning of 25 April Tyrwhitt sighted the German strike force – four battlecruisers, six light cruisers and their destroyers. Despite being massively outgunned, he attempted to divert them from their target by pretending to flee south. The German light cruisers turned towards him, but only for a few moments before turning back towards Lowestoft.
At 4.10 the German battlecruisers opened fire with their 12in guns. In ten minutes they wrecked 200 houses, although luckily with causing a large number of casualties. They then turned north towards Great Yarmouth. Three British submarines were in the vicinity, and one submerged to make an attack. This appears to have been enough to discourage the Germans, for at 4.23 the light cruisers turned back to the south east.
At 4.30 Tyrwhitt sighted the light cruisers, and opened fire at 14,000 yards, without success. The German battlecruisers turned south to come to the support of their light cruisers at 4.40 am, and were sighted by Tyrwhitt at 4.45 am, ten miles to the north. Tyrwhitt now turned south in earnest, but still came under heavy and accurate fire from the battlecruisers. HMS Conquest was hit on the superstructure by a 12in salvo, suffering 38 casualties (25 dead and 13 wounded), but was able to maintain her speed. The Laertes was also hit in the thirteen minute attack, suffering five wounded.
After engaging the British cruisers for thirteen minutes, the German battlecruisers turned away, to rejoin the High Seas Fleet off Terschelling. At this point Beatty’s battlecruisers were still some six hours away, steaming south at high speed.
Tyrwhitt turned back and attempted to catch the German fleet once again, hoping to get a chance to pick off any outlying ships, but at 8.40 the Admiralty called off the chase. At 12.30pm Beatty also turned back, and by that evening the Grand Fleet was back in its base.
The Lowestoft raid improved the morale of the German fleet, and may have played a part in delaying the start of the unrestricted submarine campaign. The Lowestoft raid was typical of an increasingly bold attitude on the part of Scheer and the High Seas Fleet that would eventually result in the battle of Jutland (31 May-1 June 1916).
In Britain it caused shock, but not panic. Balfour wrote to the Mayors of Lowestoft and Yarmouth reassuring them that the fleet would be redistributed to prevent a repeat raid. Enough new dreadnaughts had been completed since the start of the war to allow this. The Third Battle Squadron, reinforced by HMS Dreadnaught and the Third Cruiser Squadron were moved to Sheerness, arriving on 2 May. There they came under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Bradford.
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