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The War Channels of the East Coast

At the outbreak of the First World War (WW1, WWI, World War One), Germany laid thousands of mines off the east coast of England to disrupt and sink coastal shipping.

Maritime traffic along the east coast was essential for transporting coal from north east England to the south. All sorts of other cargoes - both Allied and neutral - also travelled this route. In addition, fishing vessels based on the east coast continued to be an important source of food. Ships and crews from all over the world faced the hazards of England's east coast.

Rather than try to sweep all the mines, the Admiralty decided to keep a single major channel free of mines running up the coast from the Thames to the Tyne and beyond. Other smaller channels were also kept mine-free, branching off into the main east coast ports such as Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Hull and out into the crucial sea supply lanes to the Netherlands, the Baltic, Scandinavia and the Atlantic.

The German Navy knew how important the East Coast War Channels were to Britain's war effort and used deadly mine-laying U-boats to target vessels concentrated within them. U-boats also launched torpedoes, attacked ships from the surface with gunfire, or boarded captured ships - laying explosives to sink them.

A huge effort was directed at defending the War Channels, with the Admiralty often requisitioning fishing vessels as minesweepers and escorts. Air support also played an important role with the Royal Naval Air Service establishing a chain of coastal air stations for planes, seaplanes and airships. Wireless stations intercepted signals and fixed the positions of enemy vessels. Harbours were protected by booms and Port War Signal Stations dealt with the mass of communications involved in maintaining the safe flow of ships. Convoys were finally introduced in 1917.

This is a largely forgotten campaign and much of the historical information has been dispersed.  There remains a legacy of sunken vessels, coastal infrastructure and associated archives - documents, charts, photographs - relating to the ships, the aircraft, the bases and harbours, and above all the people who served and died in the East Coast War Channels.

The First World War centenary provides a great opportunity to get involved in re-making some of the broken links, and to better understand this neglected aspect of the First World War.

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