16/12/1914 German ships shell Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool but miss a chance to win the war

In the early hours of the morning, anyone looking out to sea at Scarborough, Whitby or Hartlepool would be surprised to see warships approaching out of the mist. They are the German battlecruisers of Admiral Hipper. Once they are close enough, they open fire, pounding the largely defenceless British towns. There is little of a military nature on the receiving end of their shells. The bombardment blasts hotels, private houses, a bank, and even at Whitby the ancient abbey. The shelling causes the first civilian war deaths in England since the 17th century.

After doing their work, the German ships turn for home. A British force tries to intercept them. The British navy have sent their battlecruiser squadron under Vice Admiral Beatty and a number of heavy battleships under Vice Admiral Warrender, the force’s overall commander. The British hope to block the Germans’ return home.

The British are basing their actions on faulty intelligence. Hipper’s battlecruiser squadron has attacked the coast but the rest of the German fleet is there supporting it. Thinking they are just facing the German battlecruisers, the British have left most of their fleet in port. They do not realise it, but Warrender and Beatty are greatly outnumbered. If they meet the full enemy fleet they will be destroyed.

But the Germans do not realise their advantage. When they begin to encounter British ships, they fear that the entire British fleet is facing them and retreat away. The British try to force a battle, not realising their weakness, but in the rough seas and heavy weather they are unable to maintain contact with the enemy. The Germans slip away home, missing a chance for a possibly war-winning victory.

In Britain, the German navy’s attack on civilian targets causes outrage and is exploited for propaganda purposes. But there is also criticism of the British navy, for its failure to prevent the raid.

Images:

map (“British East Coast Raid, from Naval-History.net)

The Bombardment of Whitby, by William Scott Hodgson, from BBC website Your Paintings

Remember Scarborough! (Wikipedia)

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