THE notorious and deadly bombardment of Scarborough and Whitby by German battlecruisers in 1914 was allowed to go-ahead by the Admiralty, it is claimed in a book.
The Admiralty had secretly broken German naval codes and gambled on allowing the raid to take place in the hope of sinking the elite German ships on their return from the attack.
The claims are published in a book by the Imperial War Museum in an article The German Battlecruiser Attack on the East Coast Ports by John Bullen, a research assistant in the Department of Exhibits and Firearms at the museum.
Instead of the attack force being taken by surprise in instant revenge, the Germans managed to escape and boast of their exploits. There was national outrage that the enemy had attacked the East Coast with impunity and some Royal Navy officers were reprimanded.
But the Admiralty could not reveal publicly how close it came to delivering the Germans a crushing blow because it had bungled the plan for instant revenge. The revelation would also have compromised the code breakthroughs and Royal Navy strategy, the book reveals.
Eighteen people died in the Scarborough bombardment on the morning of December 16, including a baby and two children. Many buildings such as the Grand and Royal hotels and the lighthouse were damaged by shells. Whitby was also attacked in the same German raid, with two men killed, three wounded and the Abbey damaged.
Hartlepool suffered the worst casualties with 102 people killed and 467 wounded.
The Times spoke out and said that the public “cannot understand why a German squadron was able to reach our shores and they understand still less how it was able to get back”.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, later wrote: “We could not say a word in explanation.
“We had to bear in silence the censures of our countrymen.”
It was at 7.55am on December 16 1914 when the grey shapes of three German cruisers appeared off Scarborough and thundered 500 shells into the town.
Half-an-hour later, as the attackers sailed off to celebrate, 18 people were dead, including a baby and two boys. Hundreds were treated for injuries and many buildings were severely damaged.
The brazen attack of terror on a defenceless seaside town caused national outrage.
The Scarborough coroner wanted to know where the Royal Navy had been and The Times said on December 19 that the public “cannot understand why a German squadron was able to reach our shores and they understand still less how it was able to get back”.
The publication by the Imperial War Museum claims that the Admiralty allowed the German attack to take place in the hope of springing a surprise trap on the invaders as they sailed away.
Guisborough-born John Bullen, an exhibits and firearms research assistant at the museum, claims to have discovered the tragic truth – that the bombardment victims died because of a strategy that failed to pay off.
In The German Battlecruiser Attack on the East Coast Ports in the Imperial War Museum Review, Bullen writes: “The Admiralty gambled on a tactical trade-off in return for major strategic results: in effect, allowing German Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper to attack the east coast objectives before intervening decisively with Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s and Vice-Admiral Sir George Warrender’s battle squadrons.
“The loss of all or most of Hipper’s battlecruisers to the Royal Navy would be a prize outweighing any losses or damage inflicted by the German naval attack on the coastal ports.”
The masterplan backfired when the battlecruisers managed to escape – but the Admiralty could not publicly admit that it had failed to take advantage of breaking German naval codes and that so many Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool civilians had died in vain.
At the start of the war on August 4 1914, the greatest concentration of naval power in the world was deployed around the North Sea, including nine battlecruisers and 20 dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy, with 12 battleships, a battlecruiser and three dreadnoughts under construction.
The forces of the Hochseeflotte – the High Seas Fleet of the Imperial German Navy – included 13 battleships and five battlecruisers, with seven battleships and three battlecruisers being built.
The attack on Scarborough, Whitby and the shipbuilding town of Hartlepool had been in planning for a month before the raid and had been approved by Kaiser Wilhelm, writes Bullen. It was masterminded by Admiral Friederich von Ingenohl, commander-in-chief of the High Seas Fleet.
“The raid had several purposes,” claims Bullen in his research. “To tie down disproportionate numbers of the Royal Navy’s warships; to inflict damage on British ports; to bring home to the British people Germany’s war-making capabilities; to convince the German people of the value of the expensive High Seas fleet; to maintain morale in the Hochseeflotte by successful raiding; and to lure, if possible, cut off and destroy a squadron of British ships, and thereby reduce the Grand Fleet’s numerical superiority.”
But while von Ingenohl was still planning the attack, the British were celebrating three astonishing scoops. The keys to the three main German maritime and diplomatic Handelsverkehrbuch codes used by U-boats, small warships, Zeppelin airships and merchant ships had been discovered when the Royal Australian Navy had captured a German steamer near Melbourne.And the Russians presented the Admiralty with another gift – copies of the major German code Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine snatched from a light cruiser that had run aground near the Gulf of Finland.
The Admiralty then secured a third coup when a British fishing boat amazingly brought up a chest containing cipher material off the Dutch coast. The chest had been dumped by a sunken German torpedo boat, the S-119.
A cryptography centre was set up in Room 40 of the Old Admiralty building, off Whitehall. Listening into German wireless communications, including the Handelsverkehrbuch, the Admiralty discovered on December 14 that a German cruiser squadron with destroyers was set to sail early Tuesday morning December 15 and return the following night. An Admiralty signal to Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet: “The enemy will have time to reach our coast. Send at once, leaving tonight, the battlecruiser squadron and light squadron supported by a battle squadron, preferably the Second.
“At dawn on Wednesday (December 16) they should be at some point where they can intercept the enemy on his return.”
That was the gamble that failed, claims Bullen. The Admiralty’s priority was to annihilate Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s elite attackers on their return rather than preventing the attacks on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. But it bungled the job in a series of missed chances.
At 6.40am on the morning of the attack, von Hipper approached the English coast split his force into two – he took two battlecruisers and an armoured carrier to bombard Hartlepool and sent rear Admiral Tapken to attack defenceless Scarborough with battlecruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann and minelaying cruiser Kolberg.
The bombardment anticipated by the Admiralty began on the unsuspecting Scarborough townsfolk at 7.55am. The Imperial German Navy poured 500 shells into the town, ranging in calibre from 12in to 5.9in.
A turret of the Royal Hotel was blown away and part of the seaward front of the Grand Hotel was destroyed. The Belvedere off the Esplanade, the lighthouse, Gladstone Road school, the Old Barracks, Castle Hill, parts of Falsgrave, shops, churches and many homes were also hit.
A postman and a maid at Dunollie in Filey Road were killed instantly when a shell landed between them as he handed her a letter.
The Evening News reported: “The first thought of the inhabitants was that a violent thunderstorm had without warning burst over the town; but the real character of the visitation was quickly realised as debris began to fall about and shells burst with destructive effect in all parts of the town.
“Daylight had just broken and many towns people were at breakfast, whilst many others were still in bed...Streams of people moved out of the town along Scalby Road, Stepney Road...and all manner of vehicles took affrighted people and their goods along the roads leading into the peaceful country.”
The Von der Tann and the Derfflinger then sailed north to join up with the Hartlepool attack squad, while the Kolberg headed south to lay 100 mines off Filey.
As they proceeded unhindered, the two German battlecruisers took aim at Whitby. At 9am nearly 200 rounds of 5.9in and 3.45in shells were fired on the resort. Two men died, three were wounded and there was severe damage to the town.
By 9.30am, von Hipper’s attack ships were heading fast back to the northern German coast – ignorant of the overwhelming superior force of 10 British dreadnoughts and battlecruisers attempting to intercept and destroy them in a master counter-stroke.
Von Hipper’s forces escaped through a 20-mile gap off Whitby through the German minefields recently laid.
But the Admiralty still had hopes of confronting the German ships and inflicting a crushing blow; at 11am, the two navies were a few hundred miles apart and approaching each other at a combined speed of over 40 knots.
However, the North Sea weather then turned bad and rain reduced visibility to a little over a mile, says Bullen. Without radar, the Royal Navy’s hunt was hampered.
Then a badly-phrased signal from a Flag Lieutenant of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s First Battlecruiser Squadron caused two Royal Navy cruisers to break off their action.
A suspicious and wily von Hipper then altered course and his luck held – the German rear-admiral and his attackers eluded the Royal Navy squadrons.
“A last attempt to deploy submarines and destroyers to intercept the German forces also failed,” writes Bullen.
As the Admiralty and its admirals fumed with frustration, there was jubilation in Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm was delighted. There was no military significance in the attacks but they helped boost the German ego.
The Berliner Neuste Nachtichtenblatt newspaper said the attack on allegedly fortified English towns was “further proof of the gallantry of our navy”.
Bullen claims that the main reason the Admiralty’s plan collapsed was its faulty communications systems. The cryptography centre in Room 40 “was still in the early stages of its development and its decoders wrongly interpreted the extent of the Hochseeflotte’s sortie”.
Admiralty chiefs had to live with the tragic blunder and were angry at the Germans’ complete escape. Some Royal Navy officers were reprimanded, says Bullen.
First Sea Lord Fisher and Admiral Jellicoe, commander-in-chief, were furious. Vice-Admiral Beatty was reported to be profoundly depressed. Beatty wrote: “If we had got them Wednesday, as we ought to have done, we should have finished the war from a naval point of view”.
Bullen adds: “The Admiralty could not, of course, defend itself with the full truth about the sequence of events in the North Sea, for the secret of Room 40 had to be maintained.
“Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) later wrote: ‘We could not say a word in explanation. We had to bear in silence the censures of our countrymen. We could never admit for fear of compromising our secret information where our squadrons were, or how near the German raiding cruisers had been to their destruction’.”
The Admiralty’s revenge took a while to achieve. At the battle of Jutland in 1916, the Von der Tann and the Derfflinger were damaged by the Royal Navy. They were finally scuttled by their own crews at Scapa Flow when the Germans realised that the ships were to be handed over to the victorious Allies, with Britain taking 70 per cent of the vessels.
Von Hipper, who led the bombardments, died at home in Germany in the 1920s.
Admiral Jellicoe was granted honorary freedom of Scarborough in May 1928 and in a speech in the council chamber he blamed the bad weather for hampering the Royal Navy’s mission, without referring to the prior knowledge of the attack.
In a poignant summary, Bullen writes: “Within the imposing framework of grand strategy, national rivalries and the clash of the great navies, lies the real and personal suffering of the men, women and children of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby, and the death and wounds arbitrarily inflicted upon them in the early morning of Wednesday December 16 1914.”