5. East Coast Towns Suffer

Spurn Point from the air

“Set the land how it bears by the compasse that we may the better know thereby how to keep our account and direct our course.”
A Sea Grammar. Captain John Smith, 1627

The two most powerful protagonists engaged in battle on the Western Front, Germany and France, believed that the plans they had developed in pre war days would, if applied when hostilities commenced, bring their opponents to their knees in a matter of weeks. Germany’s hopes rested on the Schlieffen plan, adopted in 1905 and refined in the following years, a massive swinging right hook delivered across neutral Belgium through Flanders and Picardy which would see her victorious armies quartered in Paris within 6 weeks. The French high command, on the other hand, had planned a headlong attack across the German border into Lorraine, territory which had been surrendered to Prussia after the war of 1870-71, relying on a supposed national offensive spirit to fuel a bold onslaught which would smash through the German defences before reserves could be mobilised and deployed. Both plans failed.

The German armies were within striking distance of Paris when they were held and driven back at the Battle of the Marne, while the French offensive was soon brought to a standstill by defences of unexpected strength. Both sides then mounted a series of leapfrogging attacks, all of them unsuccessful, intended to turn the northern flank of their opponents, and these flowing manoeuvres only ended when the coast was reached and there were no flanks to be turned. The “race to the sea” had ended in stalemate: soon lines of trenches would stretch from the North Sea to the Swiss border, defences which, so the military leaders maintained, were only to be held temporarily until the next planned offensive (or the one after that ?) pierced the enemy positions and a mobile campaign began again. It was to be years before the promised break through was achieved.

The unexpected arrival of static trench warfare on the Western Front brought with it the biggest invasion scare of all. Politicians, Admirals and Generals in Whitehall began to believe that, if the Germans were prepared to remain on the defensive in their positions facing the diminutive British Expeditionary Force, a separate army, numbering 170, 000 men or more, could be formed and hurled against our shores. These fears even infected that former sceptic Admiral Fisher who, on his return to office as First Sea Lord on 30 October, busied himself with tide tables and forecasts of the phases of the moon, predicting that the most favourable date and time for a night time landing was 17 November. Churchill, Kitchener and Jellicoe also believed in an attempted German incursion as did King George V as he revealed to Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the BEF, on a visit to France late in November. Sir John wrote in his diary:

“He is very pessimistic about the war and greatly fears invasion. He thinks that the Germans have 250,000 men put by and ready for the express purpose of invasion ! “ (1)

The failure of the German Army to gain a quick, decisive victory in France would mean, so the Admiralty believed, that a struggle for naval supremacy in the North Sea would develop. What better way of challenging the dominance of the British Navy would there be than ordering the whole of the High Seas Fleet, hitherto quiescent, to accompany an invasion armada, and that at a time when the Grand Fleet had been weakened temporarily by the despatch eastwards of 3 of Beatty’s battle cruisers to deal with Von Spee’s Pacific Squadron ? Admiral Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet, was instructed that, when the expected invasion took place, he was to ignore what was happening onshore or off the East coast; his sole aim was to be the destruction of the High Seas Fleet. The role of the patrol flotillas in attacking the troopers, supply vessels and escorts of an invasion fleet would be even more hazardous if the might of the High Seas Fleet was to be deployed in its support.

The naval defences of the East Coast were strengthened by the transfer of the pre-Dreadnought battleships Majestic and Jupiter from the Channel Fleet to Hull where they joined the “guard ships” Victorious and Mars, and the stationing of 3 6” gunned monitors, Humber, Mersey and Severn, in the Wash. (2) In acting singly in the search for enemy minelayers, the ships of the patrol flotillas had become widely scattered and had lost the capacity for the quick, concerted action which their role in countering an attempted invasion demanded. Consequently, on 12 November Admiral Ballard , who had moved to Immingham in the depot ship St.George, was informed:

“that he was to reconcentrate the destroyers in divisions as laid down in the War Orders, and leave the prevention of mine laying to the trawlers of the Auxiliary Patrol.”(3)

The ships of the 7th.Flotilla reacted quickly to the new orders and 2 days after their receipt by the Admiral of Patrols TB1 was back in the old routine of patrolling between Spurn Point and the associated light ship or keeping watch at anchor in Hawke Road or off Bull Sand. As the November days passed and shortened, the changing tides and the worsening winter weather made it increasingly unlikely that an enemy landing could be made before the spring of 1915 and, by the time this season arrived the BEF had been reinforced and the opposing German forces were fully stretched. In the eyes of the authorities the threat of a full scale invasion slowly faded but the men of the patrol flotillas could never relax.

A few weeks after war was declared the first steps were taken in setting up the coterie of code breaking academics and eccentrics which came to be known as “Room 40”, or “40 OB”, after the room in which it was housed in the Old Building of the Admiralty. The work that was done was highly secret and was to remain so for very many years, “but Room 40’s achievements and influence on the outcome of World War One were every bit as great as those of Bletchley Park in the second conflict.” (4) By December, 1914, Room 40, under the brilliant leadership of the Director of Naval Intelligence, Captain “Blinker” Hall, was beginning to prove its worth and on the 14th.of the month was able to forecast that Admiral Hipper, with 5 battle cruisers (Seydlitz, Moltke, Von der Tann, Derflinger and Blucher)(5) accompanied by light cruisers and destroyers would be leaving the Jade early on the following morning and would return to base on the evening of the 16th. The experts at Room 40 did not discover the purpose of the foray and were unaware that Hipper’s Scouting Groups would be followed, at a distance, by the whole of the High Seas Fleet (14 dreadnoughts, 8 pre-dreadnoughts, 2 armoured cruisers, 7 light cruisers and 54 destroyers).

The “War Group” at the Admiralty, in which Fisher and Churchill were the dominant members, decided that the movements of the enemy vessels, as far as they were known, indicated an operation “of offensive character against our coasts”(6) which would be aimed at the Humber or the Tyne. Believing that there was little chance of intercepting Hipper’s battle cruisers before they struck at onshore targets, a plan was made to trap them as they steamed back to base across the North Sea - a decision which left all the towns between Harwich and Newcastle open to attack and which threatened serious losses amongst the Patrol Flotillas.

The 2nd.Battle Squadron , commanded by Vice Admiral Warrender and consisting of 6 of the fastest and most powerful battleships in the Grand Fleet, was ordered to sail from Scapa Flow, accompanied by the 1stLight Cruiser Squadron and the 4th.Destroyer Flotilla, while Beatty and his 4 battle cruisers were summoned from Cromarty and the 3rd.Cruiser Squadron from Rosyth. All these units were ordered to rendezvous at a position off the south east corner of the Dogger Bank before dawn on the 16th.December, The meeting point had been chosen by Admiral Jellicoe who guessed correctly that Hipper’s Scouting Groups, in gaining access to Britain’s eastern shoreline and returning to Germany after their raid, would use the 25 mile wide gap between the Humber and Tyne minefields, a channel which was almost on a straight line between Heligoland and Flamborough Head. What Jellicoe could not know was that Von Ingenohl, C.in C. of the High Seas Fleet, had picked a location a few miles from the British rendezvous point at which to meet Hipper’s ships returning from their sortie and escort them back to Wilhelmhaven. The scene was set for a confrontation in which the British force would be heavily out numbered.(7)

At 5.15. a.m. on 16 December, Warrender’s battleships and Beatty’s battlecruisers, 5 miles apart , were converging on the appointed meeting place when their destroyer screens suddenly found themselves engaged with their opposite numbers of the High Seas Fleet. There followed a confused, close range, intermittent battle between the opposed light forces fought in darkness and deteriorating weather conditions, until Von Ingenohl, believing that the British destroyers were covering the advance of the entire Grand Fleet and conscious of the Kaiser’s orders not to incur heavy losses, turned about and headed for home, thus leaving Hipper to his own devices. In deciding to retreat Von Ingenohl lost a great opportunity:

“Here at last were the conditions for which the Germans had been striving since the outbreak of war. A few miles away on the port bow of the High Seas Fleet, isolated, and several hours steaming from home, was the most powerful homogeneous battle squadron of the Grand Fleet, the destruction of which would at one blow have completed the process of attrition and placed the British and German fleets on a precisely equal footing as regards numerical strength.” (8)

The 2nd.Battle Squadron and the Battle Cruiser Squadron arrived at the rendezvous at 7.15.a.m. and, after receiving confusing wireless messages about the battle that was being fought by destroyers and light cruisers, Beatty set off at full speed to find the enemy ships, not realising that a successful search would bring him face to face with the High Seas Fleet. However, just before 9 a.m. a signal from the scout cruiser Patrol of the 9th. Flotilla at Hartlepool was intercepted indicating that she was engaged with 2 enemy battle cruisers and a little later messages from different sources revealed that Scarborough was being shelled. Now there could be no doubt about Hipper’s whereabouts and the British forces turned to the west and set course for the gap between the minefields. It seemed impossible that Hipper’s Scouting Groups could escape the ambush set by the Royal Navy. Churchill wrote:

“Sympathy for Hartlepool was mingled with what Mr.George Wyndham once called ‘the anodyne of contemplated retaliation.’ “(9)

Once it was known that Hipper had left his base the Admiral of Patrols was told to put his forces on a special alert and commanded to have them at sea before dawn on the 16th.December, although to conceal the existence of Room 40 and the work it was doing, he was not given any reason for these orders.(10) The weather on the East Coast had been very stormy on the preceding 2 days and Rear Admiral Ballard, aboard St. George in Immingham, modified the commands he had received and left it to the Senior Naval Officer in each port to decide whether it was safe for the ships of the Patrol Flotillas to put to sea as the Admiralty had directed.

Since the outbreak of war there had been changes in the deployment of Rear Admiral Ballard’s forces. The scout cruiser Skirmisher and the torpedo boats of the 7th. Patrol Flotilla were still based in Immingham but there were now 2 destroyer divisions at Gorleston, one having been withdrawn from Harwich. The 8th.Patrol Flotilla was in the Forth with the scout cruiser Sentinel and the 9th. had 2 destroyer divisions in the Humber, 1 at Hartlepool with the scout cruisers Patrol and Forward, and 1 in the Tyne. 4 craft of the 6th. Submarine Flotilla, which was assigned to coast defence, operated from Immingham, 1 boat was stationed at Hartlepool and 6 were in the Tyne. As it was assumed that the ships of the Patrol Flotillas were ready for action whenever they were at sea the sailors of TB1,and all the other ships, must have wondered why they had been ordered to be particularly alert on the morning of the 16th.December, not suspecting that a powerful German force was at large in the North Sea and liable to appear off the East Coast early in the day.

On approaching the English coast Hipper received a signal from the 2nd.Scouting Group reporting that the wind was so tempestuous and the waves so wild that the gun crews of the destroyers and light cruisers would be unable to fight their weapons if the enemy was encountered. After a lengthy discussion with his chief of staff, Commander Erich Raeder (11), Hipper decided to send the lighter craft home, ordering them to rendezvous with Von Ingenohl unaware that the High Seas Fleet was already on its way back to base.

On emerging from the channel dividing the minefields the battle cruisers Von der Tann and Derflinger, accompanied by the minelayer Kolberg,, turned south while the battle cruisers Seydlitz, Blucher and Moltke steamed northwards. The squadron bound south sighted Robin Hood’s Bay and then, only a mile offshore, observed the lights of the carriages of the early morning train from Whitby as it huffed and puffed its way along the coast towards the town of Scarborough. Just before 8 a.m. those inhabitants of the Edwardian spa who were out and about, or looking out to sea after pulling their bedroom curtains, espied 2 large grey shapes shrouded in mist a short distance offshore. Of course, there was no need for alarm; these ships would be those of the the Royal Navy carrying out their immemorial duty of protecting our shores from the depredations of continental enemies. But then came gun flashes and the crash of shells as Derflinger and Von der Tann opened fire while Kolberg laid a minefield “as a protection against interference by the Humber or Harwich flotillas.”(12) The bombardment lasted for approximately 30 minutes and over 500 shells were fired, most of them indiscriminately, at the town. The enormous Grand Hotel with its 365 rooms (1 for each day of the year) on 12 floors (1 for each month) was badly damaged while the ruined castle, up on the headland, battered during the Civil War, was abused by modern guns as shells struck the keep and the time-worn walls. The darkened lighthouse received a shell through the tower and had to be demolished whilst 600 buildings across the town - churches, hotels, shops and private houses - were damaged in some way ranging from shattered windows to total destruction. The number of casualties, 17 killed (including 8 women and 4 children) and over 80 injured will appear insignificant to those inured to the death rate of civilians across Europe in World War II but the anger shown throughout the United Kingdom after the Scarborough raid was fed by the fact that the bombardment was quite clearly a contravention of Convention No.9 of the Hague Conference which forbade attacks on “undefended ports” (see Appendix III) and, moreover, was the first time that civilians ashore had been killed by a foreign navy since the Dutch had sailed up the Thames in 1667.

Oblique maps became popular as this example from the Scraborough Evening News shows.

After the conclusion of the operation against Scarborough Derflinger and Von der Tann steamed up the coast to Whitby opening fire on the town at 9 a.m. for about 10 minutes and firing some 50 rounds. Once again the fire was ill directed, some shells hit the cliffs, others the medieval abbey and the coastguard station while 1 landed on the village of Newholm a mile inland and nearly 2 miles west of Whitby; 3 people were killed and 2 were injured while 40 properties were damaged. It seemed that the German ships were in a hurry to rejoin Hipper for in making off fast to the northeast they ignored 2 British tramp steamers ploughing through the heavy seas.

At Hartlepool, Captain Bruce, who as Captain(D) of the 9th Flotilla was Senior Naval Officer in the port, considered the weather conditions, although bad, safe enough to send his destroyers to sea before dawn as the Admiralty and the Admiral of Patrols wished and so, at 5.30. a.m., Doon, Waveney, Test and Moy steamed out of the harbour. However, once clear of the land, they reported to Captain Bruce that the heavy swell and the receding tide made it dangerous for other ships to cross the bar so he decided that the scout cruisers Patrol and Forward and the submarine C9 should stay in Victoria Dock.

At 8 a.m., just as the bombardment of Scarborough was beginning, the 9th. flotilla destroyers, patrolling a few miles south east of Hartlepool, sighted 3 large ships which were soon identified as the German battle cruisers, Seydlitz, Moltke and Blucher. Hipper’s ships opened fire immediately with their 11, 8.2 and 6 inch guns mocking the power of the puny 12 pounders which the British destroyers carried. The main armament of the destroyers was, of course, torpedoes but although Doon attempted an attack, the range was far too great and the little ships had to turn away - not without casualties - scattering, twisting and turning to avoid heavy fire (13).

Hartlepool was not an “undefended port”; on one side of the headland north of the bay stood the Heugh Battery, consisting of 2 6 inch guns, and on the other the Lighthouse Battery which boasted a single weapon of the same calibre. Late in the evening of 15th.December, Lieutenant Colonel Robson, Royal Garrison Artillery, aged 59 and a Volunteer and Territorial officer of long standing, received a telegram from the War Office which read:

“A special sharp look-out to be kept all along east coast at dawn tomorrow, Dec.16th. Keep fact of special warning as secret as possible; only responsible officers making arrangements to know. Troopers, London.” (14)

Robson responded to the telegram by having both his batteries, standing to at dawn on the following day so that the German battle cruisers, on emerging from a fog bank 4,000yards offshore, once identified, were soon engaged and hits were obtained on all 3 of the German vessels during a spirited action. As Blucher took on the coastal batteries Seydlitz and Moltke bombarded the town. The lookouts in the foretops of the battle cruisers could see the masts and funnels of the scout cruisers Patrol and Forward advancing as Captain Bruce struggled to get them to sea on falling tide and Moltke and Blucher adjusted their gunsights to target the docks and harbour entrance. As Patrol emerged into the fairway she was met by a hail of fire and was struck twice by heavy shells, one of which penetrated the hull low down. As the water flooded in Captain Bruce was left with no alternative but to run his ship aground on the edge of the main channel while temporary repairs were made, thus blocking Forward’s exit. C9, following astern of Patrol, was immediately straddled by enemy salvos and was forced to submerge. By now there was only 3 fathoms (18 feet) of water on the bar and the submarine grounded but managed to crawl forward into safety. Admiral Hipper’s attack, devastating though it was, lasted only just over half an hour so that by the time that Patrol’s emergency repairs had been completed and she was able to limp into the Tees, C9 had clawed herself free of the mud and Forward was ready for sea, the enemy ships had disappeared.

In 1914 Hartlepool, a shipbuilding and manufacturing town with a population of 90,000, was clearly a legitimate objective for a naval attack as it was defended by artillery and exported machinery, coal, iron ore, ships and textiles. Although the German claimed subsequently to have bombarded justifiable targets and, indeed, did cause extensive damage to shipyards, it is certain that, allowing for the difficulty of maintaining accurate fire in the existing sea conditions, there was, as at Scarborough and Whitby, considerable indiscriminate shelling. Altogether 1185 shells were fired into the town damaging or destroying 3 gasometers, a water tower, a granary, a timber yard, schools, churches, hospitals and 300 houses. Poor Hilda Horsley, a 17 year old tailoress, killed on her way to work, became the first civilian casualty and her death was followed by that of 85 others; 426 people were wounded.

It is not clear when the Admiral of Patrols at Immingham was told of the attacks by Hipper’s Scouting Groups but “at the first alarm” (15) he left his flagship, St.George, boarded the scout cruiser Skirmisher and put to sea followed by 8 torpedo boats of the 7th.Flotilla. TB1 was boiler cleaning at this time and was left behind, perhaps to the relief of many of the ship’s company for the prospect of confronting battle cruisers in such a vulnerable craft was hardly one to be relished. However, such a heavy sea was running that the torpedo boats became unmanageable and Rear Admiral Ballard sent them back to port and continued north alone. (16) The departure of Skirmisher from Immingham certainly impressed one onlooker:

“I can still see her, looking most businesslike, with her admiral’s flag at her mainmast; her grey paint and three saucily cocked funnels, her fine, lean, graceful hull, conscious of her reputation as one of the best looking ships in the service; today, cleared for action, she certainly looked the goods.” (17)

Skirmisher, fighting the storm, arrived of Flamborough Head soon after midday and sent a signal stating that there were no enemy ships between there and the Humber, later reporting that German ships had left Whitby at about 9 a.m., steering east, and had not reappeared since. In fact Hipper’s squadrons from Whitby and Hartlepool had met off the western end of the minefield gap at 11 a.m. and the combined force steamed for home and into the trap set by Warrender’s battleships and Beatty’s battleruisers. The story of how Hipper’s ships escaped unscathed and returned to Germany to receive an enthusiastic welcome is convoluted and, from the British point of view, one involving adverse weather, poor visibility, defective communications, a lack of vision displayed by some senior officers allied to an excessive reverence for orders and, most importantly, sheer bad luck.

Jellicoe’s report to the Admiralty criticised Vice Admiral Warrender, commanding the 2nd.Battle Squadron, for not reporting the presence of an enemy force when it was first sighted. The C.in C. of the Grand Fleet wrote:

“This omission had no effect on the actual escape of the enemy’s force from his own, but in my opinion he should most certainly have warned the coastal patrols at once and reported to the Admiralty and to myself. The warning to the coastal patrols, had it been given, would have allowed more time for the heavy ships in the Tyne and Humber, and at Rosyth, to have gone to sea, and would also have given the submarines a far better opportunity.“ (18)

A layman’s view might suggest also that an early warning would have allowed Rear Admiral Ballard to make a coherent plan for the deployment of the destroyers of the 7th.and 9th.Flotillas if the weather permitted a concentration of forces.


1. Richard Holmes. “The Little Fields Marshal.”
2. These ships were built by Vickers for Brazil but were taken over on the outbreak of war. Each had 2 6” guns in a turret forward and were designed as river monitors.
3. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.2”. The Auxiliary Patrol was formed in 1914 as a motley collection of trawlers, yachts and motor boats but became steadily stronger as the war progressed. 4. Patrick Beesley. “Room 40. British Naval Intelligence, 1914-1918.”
5. The British classified Blucher as a battle cruiser but to the Germans she was but an “armoured cruiser”
6. Winston S.Churchill. “The World Crisis, 1911-1918.”
7. Jellicoe wished to take the whole of the Grand Fleet to sea but was permission to do so was refused by the Admiralty. As the political head of the Navy in 2 World Wars, and also as Prime Minister, Churchill was notorious for interfering in operational matters. 8. Naval Staff Monographs.”Home waters from Nov.,1914. to the end of Jan.,1915.”
9. Winston S. Churchill. “The World Crisis,1911 to 1918.”
10. As with Bletchley Park in WWII, the information obtained by Room 40 was made available to so few individuals that the success of ongoing operations was sometimes threatened.
11. Commander Erich Raeder progressed and became C.in C.of the German Navy in WWII.
12. Julian Corbett., “Naval Operations, Vol.2”. 3 ships were sunk before the minefield was discovered.
13. German accounts state that 2 torpedoes were fired at their ships but British accounts make no mention of this.
14. Hartlepool Borough Council. “The bombardment of the Hartlepools in World War One”
15. Julian Corbett, “Naval Operations, Vol.2”.
16. There were 2 divisions of 9th.Flotilla destroyers either in the Humber or patrolling outside the estuary. Why did Ballard not take them With him ?
17. E.K.Chatterton, “The Auxiliary Patrol.”
18. Jellicoe to the Admiralty, 23 December, 1914.

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