It was news that shocked the nation.
According to Grimsby’s MP, the German Army had sailed two ships, jam-packed with soldiers, up the Humber Estuary.
The next day there were reports of an attack on a naval base near Grimsby. Then, three suspected German spies were seen taking pictures of the docks.
As the centenary of the First World War comes towards its close this autumn, Britain will remember the courage and sacrifice of the millions of people who fought around the world and on the home front.
One story that is long forgotten, however, is the Humber invasion scare.
In the run-up to the First World War, Grimsby and Immingham, with their deep-water docks, were seen as key targets should the Kaiser order an assault on England’s east coast.
Was the town really about to be invaded?
‘German troops in the Humber’
When Grimsby MP Sir George Doughty rose to speak to the House of Commons, in May, 1909, what he had to say would cause a sensation.
Sir George asked if the government was aware that the Germany Army had loaded up two troopships in Hamburg and steamed across the North Sea, into the Humber, before returning home. The First Lord of the Admiralty – the minister in charge of the Royal Navy – replied that he had no information about these manoeuvers but would be pleased to learn more.
As newspapers around the country rushed to report the exchange, Sir George told a meeting in Grimsby that the Germans had conducted a number of similar landing experiments. He urged Britons to be ready to repel an invasion of the east coast.
In the following days, fears were fanned by newspaper reports of an “attack” at a Royal Navy radio station in Humberstone and the theft of a number of codebooks. “Were they Germans?” one paper asked, adding that the base was now being guarded day and night.
Meanwhile, three foreign “spies” were reported taking photographs of the docks and asking questions about airships and whether the Humber was mined. Their cover was blown when they took a broken camera to a repair shop, where they were recognised by a certain Grimsby “gentleman” who was well connected in diplomatic circles. The police were called but the men quickly disappeared.
Fear and paranoia
The alarming reports came at a time when Britain was obsessed by the growing threat of Germany, which was investing heavily in its army and navy.
“Invasion” novels, such as The Riddle of the Sands, were wildly popular, selling millions of copies and feeding fears of an imminent attack.
Adding to the anxious atmosphere were hundreds of reports of mysterious airships, seen in the skies above eastern England.
The prospect of invasion seemed so real, that at one point the authorities issued advice to residents about what to do in the event of an attack.
According to historian Stephen Wade, in his book Grimsby in the Great War, residents were told to hide in cellars or on the ground floor of their homes, except if living on the seafront, when they should leave by the back door to avoid exposure to enemy fire.
They should also avoid “gathering into crowds or watching the bombardment from an exposed position”, in order to avoid “unnecessary loss of life”.
Fortunately, the worst never happened and Britain went on to win the war.
So, what was the truth behind the invasion panic and spy stories, and what did Grimsby MP Sir George Doughty know that led him to issue his urgent warnings?
Reporters in Britain and Germany tried to find out more about his “troopships on the Humber”, but beyond “the vague statements of the genial member”, no one seemed to know anything about it.
Well-informed journalists were in little doubt about his actual motives, however. It seems that, at the time, Sir George was hoping to persuade the government to build a major new naval base in northern Lincolnshire. What better form of persuasion than stories of an imminent German attack?
As soon as he had made his statement in the House of Commons, the notorious “penny-a-liners” of the day – hacks who made a living by selling sensational stories to newspapers – were free to spin all sorts of weird and wonderful tales.
The “attack” on the radio station on Humberstone, for example, seems to originate in a report about two tramps who loafing about nearby and were chased off by dogs.
As for the “spies” seen taking photos of the docks, they were thought to be innocent businessmen in the market to buy a trawler.
A correspondent from the Sheffield Daily Independent was sent to Grimsby to find out the truth about Sir George’s invasion.
He wrote: “Down Grimsby way, amid the din and bustle of the fish pontoons, and the smell of fish and pain, tar and oil, bronzed weatherbeaten faces grin and merry eyes twinkle at the story.”
One skipper told him: “There’s no flies on George. I don’t know what George knows. But it don’t seem a likely yard, although a fellow never knows in these ‘ere days. Shouldn’t have been surprised if the Germans had pinched a few trawlers, and swore they were captured in their limits.”
Grimsby at war
Who were the Spyclists?
Despite the huge sacrifices of the First World War, the peace was short-lived. By the 1930s, a new invasion scare started with one of the strangest of all spy stories.
In July, 1937, seven smartly dressed schoolboys set out on a bike ride from Grimsby to London. Little did they know that they were being watched all the way by the police and MI5.
Incredibly, the authorities believed these boys might be members of the Hitler Youth, surveying the area for Germany.
The unlikely story is told by Guy Walters in a TV documentary called Nazi Victory: The Post-War Plan. According to Walters, the “Spyclists” were preparing the ground for a German invasion of England, by building up a detailed picture of the nation’s infrastructure.
Among the witnesses was a police superintendent, who saw the boys near Boston and was convinced they were German subjects.
Walters believes there may have been hundreds of German spies and sympathisers operating in Britain in the years before the outbreak of war. They may even have prepared secret weapons dumps in the area, ready for an invasion.
In the end, however, the biggest local casualty was Cleethorpes Pier, which lost the majority of its length when a section was removed to guard against a German landing. After the war, the isolated part was demolished and the shorter stump was left – the last victim of the invasion scares.
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